Archive | March, 2014

Star of the New Evangelization

31 Mar

Pope and BVMWe now come to the final installment of our series on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium, or “EG”).

As is typical of many papal documents in recent memory, the Holy Father concludes with some reflections on the Blessed Virgin Mary and a prayer seeking her maternal intercession for the “new evangelization” (EG 284-88).

The Pope describes Mary as being singularly present in the midst of God’s people. As at Pentecost, her prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit gives birth to “the Church which evangelizes” (EG 284). We look to her to understand the spirit of the new evangelization, for which we fervently desire a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Father continually stresses the close connection between Mary, the Church, and each individual believer. At the foot of the Cross, at the moment of the new creation, Jesus entrusted the Blessed Virgin Mary to John—and to us! The Church would never have to journey in this world without a mother (EG 285).

I found some of the titles for Mary at the conclusion of EG to be quite interesting and revealing. She is called the “Mother of the Living Gospel” and “Star of the New Evangelization.” She is the model of both contemplation (cf. Luke 2:19, 51) and pastoral concern for others (cf. John 2:5). She teaches us about a different sort of strength, one rooted in love, humility, and tenderness. The Pope calls upon the Church to embrace this Marian “style” of evangelization (EG 288), so that the joy of the Gospel may truly reach to the end of the earth, especially to God’s little ones.

Great Vocations Site

27 Mar

IRLIn celebration of its 40th anniversary, the Institute on Religious Life (IRL) has launched a completely redesigned and rebuilt website at ReligiousLife.com.

The new site, made possible by funding from the Our Sunday Visitor Institute, is more dynamic and user friendly than the older site, with many more audio and video features to complement existing features. In my estimation (and admittedly I’m prejudiced as a long-time advisor to the IRL), it is the premier vocations information portal on the Internet today.

I invite you to visit the new IRL site. You can sign up for an eight-day “virtual” vocation discernment retreat, browse the entirely new online catalog, or read the new e-version of Religious Life magazine.

Check out the “Speak Lord” vocational download of the month club, and VocationSearch–the IRL’s searchable database of great religious communities.

Visit ReligiousLife.com, too, for complete information on the upcoming 2014 IRL National Meeting, featuring guest speaker Mother Dolores Hart, O.S.B., who left her life as a top Hollywood actress to become a cloistered Benedictine nun.

Are Sundays of Lent Days of Penance?

25 Mar

Sundays during Lent have a penitential character, but one markedly different from that of the weekdays of Lent. Because Sunday is primarily a day of celebration of the Resurrection (Catechism, nos. 2174, 2177), it is not counted among the “forty days” of Lent that are traditionally marked by fasting.

“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice” (Catechism, no. 2181) and retains its essential character as a day marked by “worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body” (Catechism, no. 2185).

Nevertheless, the entire season of Lent, including the Sundays of Lent, is a time of penance. The penitential character of Sundays of Lent is reflected in the wearing of violet vestments and the prayers and readings of the Sunday Masses. It is also reflected in the prohibitions of the singing of the Gloria and the Alleluia, the adorning of the altar with flowers, and the playing of the organ and other instruments (except for the purpose of accompaniment).

The discipline of the Church and the piety of Christians throughout the centuries demonstrate that penance is expressed differently on Sundays of Lent from weekdays of Lent. In the early Middle Ages in the West, the weekdays of Lent were days of fast (one meal) and abstinence (at that time, from dairy products as well as from meat), while Sundays of Lent were days of abstinence only. The Holy See later permitted meat and dairy products to be eaten on Sundays of Lent. Today, of course, only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fast and abstinence (from meat), while all the Fridays of Lent are days of abstinence.

Penance extends beyond fasting. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

“The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works)” (no. 1438).

Sundays of Lent, then, have a penitential character, which may include spiritual practices such as prayer, almsgiving, pilgrimages, and retreats, without in any way losing the sense of their being set apart as the “Lord’s Day.”

Click here for more on the history of Lenten observances.

Spirit-Filled Evangelizers

24 Mar

Pope Francis 4In the final chapter of his apostolic exhortation on the joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium, or “EG”), Pope Francis exhorts us to be bold, Spirit-filled evangelizers. He calls all of us to proclaim the Gospel “not only with words, but above all by a life transfigured by God’s presence” (EG 259). To that end, he shares with us his thoughts on the proper spirit of the new evangelization (EG 260), yet recognizing that his words of encouragement can only go so far. We must allow our hearts to be set on fire by the Holy Spirit! (EG 261).

The Holy Father offers some reasons for a renewed missionary impulse in our time. He is looking for a new generation of evangelizers who are truly willing to “pray and work” (EG 262). He especially encourages Eucharistic adoration, but then he expects the faithful to leave the adoration chapel ready to be a blessing to others in their need.

Every period of history poses its own unique challenges to those who would be missionaries. Yet there is much that we can and must learn from the saints of previous generations, “who were filled with joy, unflagging courage, and zeal in proclaiming the Gospel” (EG 263).

The Pope emphasizes that the primary reason for evangelization is the love of Jesus—a love that urges us to love Him more deeply in return and to share that love with others (EG 264). We need to implore His grace daily, begging that our love may not grow cold or lukewarm. We must spend time with Jesus. In that regard, the Holy Father especially encourages us to slowly contemplate the pages of the Gospel, reading it from the heart.

Our enthusiasm for evangelization is based on the conviction that the Gospel responds to a universal hunger for God (EG 265). We must sustain this conviction by constantly renewing and savoring our own friendship with Jesus. The Pope pointedly notes that a true missionary never ceases to be a disciple. Further, he warns that “a person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain, and in love will convince nobody” (EG 266). A missionary must be willing to set aside all other motivations and agendas and “evangelize for the greater glory of the Father who loves us” and who sent His only Son to redeem us (EG 267).

God saves us as a people, and His love extends to all. Evangelization must entail entering others’ lives. We simply can’t be evangelists if we don’t have a passion for God’s people (EG 268). Rather than keep ourselves at arm’s length, Our Lord wants us “to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others” (EG 270).

The Holy Father stresses that we must truly become men and women “of the people” (EG 271) and not their critic or enemy. He quotes several Scripture passages that exhort us to live humbly and peaceably with others, always seeking to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Living this way is not an “extra” or part of our “job,” but rather part of our deepest identity 24/7 (EG 273). Every person has inestimable dignity and value, and therefore every person is eminently worthy of our giving (EG 274).

We must avoid getting caught up in the pursuit of selfish comforts or pleasures, which the Pope says can easily occur when we do not have a deep spiritual life (EG 275). When that happens, we lose hope and are fooled into believing that things are not going to change—even though Jesus Christ has definitively triumphed over sin and death!

Instead, Christ must always be the wellspring of our hope. We do well to remember that the Resurrection is not merely an event in the distant past, but rather is an ongoing reality that has power in the present (EG 276). If we rely on our own steam rather than the power of the Resurrection, we will grow weary and eventually give up (EG 277). While we don’t always see tangible results from our evangelistic labors, the Pope says we have an interior certainty that God is always mysteriously at work, allowing our efforts to bear fruit in His good time (EG 279-80).

The Pope concludes this section with some reflections on the missionary power of intercessory prayer, through which we seek the good of others (EG 281). Authentic prayer opens us up to others, leading us to be grateful for the gift of others (cf. Romans 1:8), as we become more conscious of what God is doing in their lives. Our prayer frees us from self-absorption and opens us to others’ needs (EG 282). Our prayers of intercession allow God’s power, love, and faithfulness to shine ever more clearly in the midst of His people (EG 283).

Giving with All Our Mite

19 Mar

When my family lived in Steubenville, Ohio, my wife Maureen and I always looked forward to the dinner in which our bishop would launch the annual diocesan fund-raising campaign. It became an annual “date” for us. We have always tried to give what we can to our diocese and parish, Catholic apostolates, and worthwhile charities.

Each year we’re stretched a little thinner as we support more and more “good causes.” And at the same time, our children have gotten older and have more expensive educational and personal needs, including Catholic schools.

We know that good stewardship involves looking out for number one, except our “number one” is not ourselves, but Our Lord.

The biblical concept is tithing. In the Old Testament, tithing was a moral and spiritual obligation to make an offering to God of ten percent off the top of all the fruits of one’s labors (cf. Lev. 27:30). In fact, if one didn’t tithe, it was considered stealing from God! (Mal. 3:7-8).

Even more fundamental than the mere “accounting” aspect is the sense of generosity and piety that goes along with tithing. It’s all about making the Lord the priority in one’s life, as brought home so clearly in the story of the widow’s mite (Lk. 21:1-4). The poor widow was not a major Temple benefactor by earthly standards, but her gift was singled out for praise by the Lord because of the great love she showed in giving the little she had.

Maybe that’s why my favorite birthday or Father’s Day gifts tend to be the ones my children make themselves. These artistic treasures, often saved for posterity on our refrigerator or my office’s walls, serve absolutely no practical purpose. What makes them valuable to me is that they represent a loving sacrifice on the part of my children, which means infinitely more than any monetary value other gifts might have.

When it comes to tithing today, the Church doesn’t require that we give 10%, but we are required to support the Church through the generous use of our own time, talent, and treasure. The exact amount isn’t as important as the priority and generosity that accompany the giving. The traditional 10% is a helpful, biblical measuring rod, but there’s nothing preventing us from giving 15 or 20%!

Speaking for myself, I wasn’t raised in a tithing home. We really valued a buck. It has taken me a while to really soak in the Church’s teaching in this area, and I am far from where I need to be in this area. Still, I can say from personal experience, despite many financial obligations and the fact that over twenty years ago I left my law practice to work for Church-related entities, that the more our family has given, the more Our Lord has provided for our every need. I shouldn’t be surprised at this, because He pretty much tells us that this would be the case (cf. Mt. 6:33). Yet, I still truly marvel at this reality.

Perhaps God multiplies our offerings like Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes. Maybe generosity instills a right order that shapes all of our spending. Perhaps tithing encourages us to do without things that really aren’t necessary. Or, more likely, it’s a combination of all of the above.

I know Christian financial advisors whose first advice to clients who are heavily in debt is to begin to tithe, and if they won’t do it, then they can’t help them. Tithing is part of the solution even on a most pragmatic, worldly level.

As the saying goes, Our Lord will not be outdone in generosity. Ordinarily, we are commanded not to put the Lord to the test. But when it comes to supporting the Church, Scripture invites us to put the Lord to the test (cf. Mal 3:10). Those who do are amazed at what happens.

Generosity involves much more than writing a check–but Maureen and I long ago decided that that’s not a bad place to start. I guess we’re just putting our money where our hearts are.

You’d think Religious Leaders would Protect Religious Freedom

18 Mar

Today a colleague shared with me an email with this headline:

 National Religious Leaders Affirm Access to Birth Controsupreme court picl in Advance of SCOTUS Hearing

 Today, 45  religious leaders of various “nationally recognized” groups released a joint statement supporting universal access to contraception, and affirming that equal access to contraceptives through insurance coverage is a moral good. The statement comes a week before the U.S. Supreme Court hears two cases by private companies to deny  birth control coverage in their employee health insurance, as mandated by the Affordable Care Act.

You can read the full text here: www.religiousinstitute.org/faithleaders4bc.  In the statement they say:

As religious leaders, we support universal access to contraception. We believe that all persons should be free to make personal decisions about their reproductive lives, their health and the health of their families that are informed by their culture, faith tradition, religious beliefs, conscience, and community.  We affirm, in accordance with each of our faith traditions, that ensuring equal access to contraceptives through insurance coverage is a moral good. Including contraceptives as a covered service does not require anyone to use it; excluding contraceptive coverage for those who choose to plan and space their families with modern methods of birth control will effectively translate into coercive childbearing for many.”

Their statement is deeply troubling because it is well-written sophistry that uses religious language to confound the issue.

Basically they are saying that as religious people they deem contraception a positive moral good and any religious person who believes differently is fine to refrain from its use but unjust to deny others access by refusing to pay for it.

There are many problems with this position.  However, rather than attack the inherent immorality of contraception I wonder if it is not better to ask why do we have religious freedom in the first place?

The foremost reason would be that we as a people hold that all  individuals have inherent dignity and rights.  The most fundamental right is the freedom to sincerely seek communion with God in accordance with our conscience and thus to not be coerced to practice anyone’s religion or irreligion.

However, another more pragmatic reason is in response to our experience of Europe’s religious wars.  Recognizing everyone’s freedom of religion by making all possible accommodations (even if inconvenient) to allow religious groups to practice their faith by the dictates of their own conscience enables our nation to function. That is how for the last 238 years we have all been able to get along and collaborate to create prosperity.  For these religious leaders to assert that contraception is a positive moral good and thus the State should force all religious people to pay for other people’s contraception misses the point.  It is not the function of Government, after consulting with some religious groups, to force other religious groups or individuals to do the “right” thing, in violation of their sincerely held moral and religious beliefs.  The State must have a compelling interest in service to the common good  to force people to violate religious beliefs and only do so when another accommodation cannot be made.  (This compelling interest is a check on crazy or at-will beliefs to prevent an abuse of religious freedom e.g.  a claim that crystal meth is a religious ritual. )

So the question should not be “which religion is right?”, but rather, “can the State achieve its objective without forcing anyone to violate his or her conscience?”.  Clearly in the case of contraception the State already ensures the “universal access”  these religious leaders want by requiring Medicaid to cover contraception.  As well, by mandating universal access to “free” contraception won’t that drive up the price for those  who still don’t have insurance, preventing the universal access that these leaders seek?  During the debate for the Affordable Care Act no legislator even mentioned contraception or made the argument that there was not reasonable access to contraception because everyone who wanted it could get it.  So really, the State is forcing people to violate their conscience when there is no compelling need.

As well, if it is wrong to deny contraceptive coverage because if “effectively coerces childbearing”,  why is it not also wrong to actually coerce people to violate their conscience?  By consenting to the HHS mandate these religious leaders are effectively giving the state unfettered power to decide on religious matters.  Like members of the press fervently guard freedom of the press, even the  freedom of those presses they disagree with, these religious leaders should also guard the First amendment.

In a democracy the consensus of the majority can change.  Perhaps today there is a consensus that we should all have to pay for other people’s contraception and these religious leaders have no problem with that.  Perhaps tomorrow there will be a consensus that we should all have to pay for other people’s abortions.  Will not at least some of those religious leaders  want the protection they compromise today?  Or let us suppose, as has happened in other countries, there is a huge growth in the Muslim population and this creates a democratic consensus that we should all have to pay for female circumcision.  While this is a wild speculation and not all Muslim countries have this practice, the point is that we can all conceive of scenarios where we would not want  to have to pay for medical procedures we find abhorrent.  For religious leaders to enable the Government to deprive other religious groups and individuals the right to follow their conscience, simply because they happen to agree with the Government is short sighted and irresponsible.

We in America live in peace because we practice tolerance especially regarding those areas that go to the core of who we are as persons.  For one religious group to collaborate with the State  to deny other religious groups their rights to follow their conscience endangers this peace and endangers religion.  As religious leaders, you’d think they would know better.

Mother Shares Perspective on Death Penalty After Daughter’s Murder

17 Mar

So often in the Death Penalty debate we don’t get a chance to hear from the victim’s family.  Vicki Schieber will be in Leawood on Wednesday to share her powerful testimony.Vicki Schieber

Vicki Schieber, the mother of Shannon Schieber, who was just 23 years old when she was brutally raped and murdered in 1998, shares her unique perspective on the death penalty. Mrs. Schieber is now the Education Coordinator at the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty and is Chair of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights’ Board of Directors.

What: St Michaels the Archangel Church hosts a talk by Vicki Schieber

When: Wednesday, March 19th at 7:00pm

Where: St Michael the Archangel Church, 14251 Nall Avenue, Leawood, KS 66223

Admission is free and the talk will take place in the Church Basement

Dialogue, Peace, and Evangelization

11 Mar

Pope Francis5Pope Francis devotes a section of his apostolic exhortation on the joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium, or “EG”) to the role of social dialogue in the promotion of peace (EG 238-58). He considers this a significant part of the Church’s overall mission to carry the Gospel out to all the world. He cites three specific areas of dialogue: with states, with society (including cultures and sciences), and with believers who are not members of the Catholic Church (EG 238).

The Church supports the efforts of the State to promote peace in ways that respond to the dignity of the human person and promote the common good (EG 241). While this may sound too grandiose for the average believer, the Holy Father also reminds us that every baptized person is called to be “a peacemaker and a credible witness to a reconciled life” (EG 239).

Dialogue between science and faith is also part of the work of evangelization at the service of peace. The Holy Father calls for a synthesis of empirical science and other areas of knowledge, especially philosophy and theology. The new evangelization must be attentive to scientific advances and “shed on them the light of faith and the natural law” (EG 242). The Church delights in the progress and potential of science. Problems occur only when science—or faith—exceeds the limit of its respective competence. At that point, the issue is not one of truth, but of ideologies that can only block “the path to authentic, serene, and productive dialogue” (EG 243).

When the Holy Father speaks of “other believers” (EG 238) he is referring to both ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue. He sees ecumenism as “a contribution to the unity of the human family” (EG 245). He is painfully conscious of the counter-witness of division among Christians, especially in Asia and Africa. In light of the vast numbers of people who have not received the Gospel, “our commitment to a unity that helps them to accept Jesus Christ can no longer be a matter of mere diplomacy or forced compliance, but rather an indispensable path to evangelization” (EG 246).

Pope Francis accords Judaism a special place among non-Christian religions. After all, the Church looks upon the Jewish faith as one of the sacred roots of our own Christian identity (cf. Romans 11:16-18). The Holy Father cites our current friendship with the Jewish people as well as our bitter regret for past persecutions and injustices (EG 248). While we must always proclaim Jesus as Lord and Messiah, we continue to share the Hebrew Scriptures with them as well as many ethical convictions (EG 249).

The Pope says that “interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world, and so it is a duty for Christians as well as for other religious communities” (EG 250). Here he stresses the close relationship between dialogue and proclamation. We need to be clear and joyful regarding our own convictions and identity, while also being open to understanding those of other faiths in a spirit of candor and goodwill (EG 251). Pope Francis singles out dialogue with Islam as especially important in our time. One comment he made that I found especially eye-opening was this: “[O]ur respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence” (EG 253).

The Holy Father concludes this section with some consideration of religious freedom, a fundamental human right that includes “the freedom to choose the religion that one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public” (EG 255).  Redefining religious liberty as a right that only applies in private consciences and inside church buildings is “a new form of discrimination and authoritarianism” (EG 255). Respect can be given to non-believers without silencing the convictions of the believing majority. Such a heavy-handed approach can only feed resentment, not  tolerance and peace.

In all of this, the Holy Father is relentlessly stressing the social dimension of the Gospel, which beckons all of us to “get our shoes dirty”—to boldly bring the Gospel to the world in words, attitudes, and deeds (EG 258).

Peace Principles

6 Mar

After a bit of a hiatus, we are now continuing our series on Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on the joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium, or “EG”).

The Holy Father devotes a section toward the end of the document to “The Common Good and Peace in Society” (EG 217-37), a subject that clearly is near and dear to his heart. Authentic peace is not the mere absence of war or violence. It is also incompatible with the oppression of the poor and violations of the rights and dignity of the human person. Peace built on such a defective foundation simply is “doomed” (EG 219).

Pope Francis offers four principles to help us understand and balance some perennial tensions in human society. They provide excellent food for thought and meditation:

(1) Time is greater than space (EG 222-25) Time is open to the future, to our full potential, while space deals with limitation. Business people sometimes refer to the latter as a “zero sum” game, where competing parties are competing for pieces of the same pie. When we give priority to time, however, we find creative ways out of our limitations. This principle means initiating processes rather than possessing spaces, as self-assertion gives way to peaceful development (EG 223).

(2) Unity prevails over conflict (EG 226-30) Conflict is real. We can choose not deal with it or, at the other extreme, to become consumed by it. The best approach, however, is to deal with it and seek resolution. After all, “Blessed are the peacemakers!” (Mt. 5:9). Peace is possible because Christ, who is our peace (Eph. 2:14), has reconciled the world to God through the blood of His Cross (Col. 1:20). And, the Holy Father urges us, peace and reconciliation must begin in our own hearts. We are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation, seeking to build communion amidst diversity and disagreement. In Christ, such peace is possible!

(3) Realities are more important than ideas (EG 231-33) Obviously both have their place, but ideas separated from reality readily devolve into ideologies. Our faith is incarnate and not merely theoretical. The Word must become flesh within us, leading us to put words into practice. As Our Lord Himself said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and do it” (Lk. 11:27-28).

(4) The whole is greater than the part (EG 234-37) Localism and globalism are both important realities. A global perspective keeps us from becoming too narrow in our thinking, and a local perspective keeps our feet on the ground (EG 234). As we strike this balance we recognize that the whole is not only greater than the part, but it’s even greater than the sum of its parts. We need to broaden our horizons, to look beyond our immediate situation and develop a worldview that is inclusive of all peoples, especially the poor. So too, “the whole is greater than the part” also applies to the integrity of the Gospel, which must serve as a light for all peoples (EG 237). The Gospel in its fullness must be proclaimed, lived, shared.

Next week we will continue this series with some reflections on “social dialogue as a contribution to peace.”

Give It Up!

4 Mar

I remember well my first Lent in a religious community in the 1980s. Most of us seminarians, like many people out in the world, gave up sweets for 40 days. The one time that this penance really came into play was during the afternoon coffee break. The nearby Au Bon Pain restaurant donated day-old pastries to the seminary, and these were typically brought out to give us a little sugar boost to get us through metaphysics and epistemology (with mixed results).

So, while the rest of us were wistfully looking at the full tray of Au Bon Pain goodies, one delightfully chubby seminarian walked up and started munching on a big chocolate croissant. In between bites (barely) he told me, “This year I decided to do positive penance, so I’m just going to be charitable.”

The seminarian was joking, but this did illustrate how our image of ”Lenten penance” can become skewed. As we celebrate “Fat Tuesday” today in anticipation of the beginning of Lent tomorrow, I thought I would point out four approaches to Lent that seem a little disordered.

(1) Lobstermania

Of course all Catholics are called to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent. Hence we have all the fish fries, cheese enchilada nights, and “parish soup and stations [of the Cross]” nights. If one simply went from parish to parish on Fridays during Lent, one would eat better than he or she normally would the rest of the year.

There’s nothing wrong with this, and in fact, these events can have the positive effect of building up the parish community.

Still, the purpose of the meatless days is to provide an opportunity for self-denial, so I wonder about going out to restaurants for lobster, mahi mahi, or other seafood delicacies that are technically “legal,” but hardly penitential. For vegetarians and for those who love seafood, abstinence from meat requires little effort, and so the challenge for them–and for all of us–is to internalize both the letter and the spirit of the fast and abstinence laws.

(2) Legalism Gone Amuck

It’s always fun to see what little kids “give up” for Lent. Some of us, even as grown-up kids, have learned to work the system. We give up Diet Coke, but we can have Coke Zero or Diet Pepsi. We give up Mounds, so we have Almond Joy. We give up television, but rent a boatload of videos.

Or we’ll make crucial exceptions. We’ll give up watching sports, which isn’t too tough once football season is over, but then make an exception for March Madness or Opening Day at the K (in other words, when there’s a sporting event we really want to watch).

Or we’ll give up alcoholic beverages, but make exceptions for everyone’s birthday, baptism day, saint day, anniversary, Tuesdays, and national holidays. And of course Sundays, solemnities, and St. Patrick’s Day never count.

These are, of course, voluntary acts of penance, and at times adjustments need to be made out of charity and prudence. But sometimes we might ask ourselves how much we’re really willing to sacrifice for Our Lord.

(3) Catholic X-Games

This one is especially attractive to zealous young people who really want to “do something” for God. One year as a green “revert” to the faith I actually tried to fast the entire period of Lent on bread, limited amounts of juice, and water. I didn’t make it to Easter, and after a couple weeks I was so weak I couldn’t do much of anything.

In subsequent years I tried to moderate the penances a little more, but still went a little overboard, especially when it came to depriving myself of sleep.

Therein we see the importance of having a sound spiritual guide who can help us maintain a healthier balance in our lives, especially given our work and family responsibilities. But even more, we can’t allow our penances to devolve into mere “feats of will power” rather than loving offerings to God. It’s not about us.

(4) Catholic Weight Loss Plan

All this talk of fast and abstinence ties in nicely with the need most of us have to lose a few pounds (okay, in my case, more than a few pounds). Hey, why start a diet on New Year’s with the Super Bowl just around the corner? And besides, why do you think they call it “Fat Tuesday” (Mardi Gras)? The idea is that we binge through Super Bowl weekend, culminating in an outlandish display of gluttony on Fat Tuesday. Even if we didn’t need to go on a diet before, we need to now!

There’s nothing wrong with losing some weight this month, and the fact that Lent provides some built-in impetus for such self-improvement can be a real blessing. The only caveat is that Lent is about 40 days of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in anticipation of Our Lord’s suffering, death, and resurrection. We’re training for Easter, not for the Olympics or a Nutrasystems ad!

And a legitimate weight-control (and spiritual) program should be year-round and avoid gluttonous behavior.

Okay, those are a few mindsets to avoid. But how should we approach Lent?

I think how this time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving plays out differs from person to person, and our own individual approach varies as we go through different stages of life. But one thing is sure: Whatever we do, our focus should be primarily on the Lord, and secondarily on serving Him in the poor and needy in our midst.

Maybe my seminarian friend was right after all. It would be a most fruitful Lent indeed if I become more charitable–love God more, and love my neighbor more. Everything else is just (lo-cal, meatless) gravy.