Tag Archives: penance

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.

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.

Why Confess Sins to a Priest?

13 Jun

ConfessionalI think that the best way to answer this question is by beginning with Baptism. Through the Sacrament of Baptism, a person is cleansed of original sin and receives the “grace of a new birth in God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Spirit” (St. Irenaeus, 2nd century bishop). Through this regeneration in water and the Spirit, a person becomes a Christian, born again as a son or daughter of God (Jn. 3:3-6; Rom. 8:14-17).

After becoming a child of God, one may freely damage or break off his relationship with God through sin. While venial sin damages our relationship with God, mortal sin actually severs the relationship through the loss of God’s supernatural life of grace within us (cf. 1 Jn. 5:16-17; Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1854-64).

When a person chooses to kill that life of grace through mortal sin, God, who is full of mercy, seeks to reconcile His prodigal son or daughter to Himself (cf. Lk. 15:11-32). God alone can forgive sins, yet He empowered the Apostles and their successors–bishops and priests–to carry out His ministry of reconciliation (cf. 2 Cor. 5:18-21). In fact, Christ instituted the Sacrament of Reconciliation as His first gift to the Church on Easter Sunday. As St. John writes:

[Jesus said,] “As the Father has sent Me [with all authority, Mt. 28:18], even so I send you.” And with this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn. 20:21-23; cf. Lk. 10:16; Mt. 16:19, 28:18-20).

The Church’s power to bind and loose (Mt. 16:19, 18:18) provides further scriptural evidence for this sacrament. As the Church has taught for 2,000 years, the priest exercises his ministry in persona Christi (that is, in the person of Christ). This means that in confessing one’s sins to a priest, one truly confesses one’s sins to Christ Himself and receives pardon from God. Because the priest acts in persona Christi, he is the spiritual head or “father” of the community (cf. 1 Cor. 4:14-15). Thus, Confession reconciles us with Christ and His Body, the Church, whom we have wounded by sin.

Sin is never a private matter, since it always disrupts the order of creation and the whole community (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-6). Through Christ, the priest forgives the sinner in the name of the whole community, the Body of Christ. “Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God” (Catechism, no. 1445). In his New Testament Epistle, St. James exhorts us, “[C]onfess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (Jas. 5:16).

The Sacrament of Confession is one of healing. It makes us aware of our sinfulness and our dependence on God; therefore everyone is encouraged to receive the sacrament frequently in order to grow closer to Lord and to one another.

So sin is not a solitary matter, nor does any Christian have a “God-and-me-alone” relationship with the Father (1 Cor. 12:12-26). Confessing our sins within the Body of Christ allows us to reconcile with God and strengthen the Church, providing a witness so that all may turn and repent (2 Pet. 3:9).

Going to Confession?

15 Oct

Have you been to Confession (aka the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation) lately? Would you like to go, or perhaps even feel that the Lord is asking you to go, but it’s been awhile? Well then, let’s review the basics so that you are fully equipped to respond to this godly inspiration.

Especially at this time of year, the most common form of the Sacrament of Penance is the Rite for the Reconciliation of Individual Penitents.

Many localities also offer communal penance services, typically before Christmas and Easter. These services streamline the process so as to accommodate a larger number of penitents, but they still involve individual confession of sins and individual absolution. And at any rate, Christmas is still more than two months away, so there is no reason to wait for the next round of communal services.

So what are the steps to going to Confession? Continue reading