Lent - invitation to reality
By Edmond Nixon, C.Ss.R.
For most Catholics over recent decades Lent has become less “churchy”. Lenten devotions in many parishes are not as common as they were and are usually less well attended. Guidelines for fasting and abstinence have become just that – guidelines. Some of the strictures that used surround Lent in the Catholic ethos have receded.
One thing that humans know about themselves is that they respond well to periodic (for example annual) practices that have merit in themselves, have practical and symbolic benefits for those who practice them, and have similar benefits for the world at large. Examples would include more real prayer, fasting, abstinence, and a deeper awareness of others that engenders appropriate responses – visiting the sick, protecting outcasts. But it remains true that today, on the broad plains of Western culture, the old Lenten practices don’t seem to have quite the same bite they used to.
The world is more complex today and in that world it is not just that the Christian Lent is becoming less “churchy”, the whole of life is. It is part of the phenomenon known as secularisation. Early in this era, and early too in his pontificate, Paul VI was aware of the transition. He put words on it and tried to lead the Church to a deeper integrity of heart in order to underpin a deeper service to the world at large.
As never before, Lent has become an invitation to reality.
At the beginning of Lent, 1966, Pope Paul VI released his Apostolic Constitution on Penance (Paenitemini). It was a call to the whole Church to explore fresh ways and new depths to being a penitential people. He invited a new interiorisation of the Christian tradition of penance and he urged the Church to live out that interiorisation within the contemporary world.
Paul VI wanted to re-link traditional prayer and fasting to charity and the primary responsibilities of persons. In regard to the latter he said: “The Church insists first of all that the virtue of penitence be exercised in persevering faithfulness to the duties of one's state in life, in the acceptance of the difficulties arising from one's work and from human coexistence, in a patient bearing of the trials of earthly life and of the utter insecurity which pervades it.” (#3A)
Many Catholics have taken Pope Paul’s perspective to heart, even if they are not aware he ever offered it in his guidelines. Other Catholics feel a bit lost when it comes to penance. Yet they are selfless in myriad ways that reveal their generous hearts and charity in the everyday world. In spite of the selfishness in the world, both in the street and on the media, the selfless generosity of so many people stares back at us every day, every night.
“Where economic well-being is greater,” Pope Paul said, “so much more will the witness of asceticism have to be given in order that the Church’s children may not be involved in the spirit of the ‘world,’ and at the same time the witness of charity will have to be given to the brethren who suffer poverty and hunger beyond any barrier of nation or continent.”
At that time Pope Paul also encouraged the bishops in each part of the world to invite their communities into common efforts of penance that embraced charity and justice. The Australian bishops’ response was to introduce “Project Compassion”. So successful has been their initiative that for many generations of Australian Catholics “Project Compassion” is recognised as the human face of Lent.
The study of the faith and its teachings is a further Lenten discipline in keeping with the exhortations of Paul VI. Studying the faith takes the followers of Christ beyond self in order to understand God better. It enables them to get some perception of how God might be active in the world, especially among the poor.