March 15, 2017
Every Lent brings an opportunity for change. This year, Pope Francis has set the tone for the kind of change he would like to happen in us. He wants the conversion in our hearts to be a turn toward the other.
In his letter for the Lenten season of 2017, Pope Francis asks us to approach our Lenten practices with a focus on our fellow human beings and how we can help them. He begins by pointing out that other persons are a gift. He writes, “A right relationship with people consists in gratefully recognizing their value. Even the poor person at the door of the rich is not a nuisance, but a summons to conversion and to change. … each person is a gift, whether it be our neighbor or an anonymous pauper.”
Pope Francis Our Holy Father writes, “Lent is a favorable season for opening the doors to all those in need and recognizing in them the face of Christ. Each of us meets people like this every day. Each life that we encounter is a gift deserving acceptance, respect and love.”
“Dear friends, Lent is the favorable season for renewing our encounter with Christ, living in his word, in the sacraments and in our neighbor. The Lord, who overcame the deceptions of the Tempter during the forty days in the desert, shows us the path we must take. May the Holy Spirit lead us on a true journey of conversion, so that we can rediscover the gift of God’s word, be purified of the sin that blinds us, and serve Christ present in our brothers and sisters in need.
“Let us pray for one another so that, by sharing in the victory of Christ, we may open our doors to the weak and poor. Then we will be able to experience and share to the full the joy of Easter.”
In response to the invitation of Pope Francis, let’s make this an other-centered Lent, such that the way we approach the traditional practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving will increase our spirit of solidarity with our brothers and sisters around the world.
Prayer This year, when we participate in the special prayer opportunities of the Lenten season, we should try to find ways to connect with other people. For example, if we decide to attend Daily Mass on some of the weekdays of Lent, we might invite a friend or co-worker to come to Mass with us. Attending Daily Mass does wonders for our faith life, and it helps us to pray more consciously in union with the whole Church on earth, in Purgatory, and in Heaven.
When we make plans to go to one of the Lenten Penance Services in a local parish, we could bring along some family members or a friend, so they might also have the opportunity to experience the joy of sacramental reconciliation. A communal Penance Service is intended to help us see how sin impacts social relationships and God’s mercy renews the entire community.
The traditional spiritual practice of praying the Stations of the Cross in the parish on the Fridays of Lent is another good time for inviting others. I especially recommend bringing young people, to help them develop a deeper love for Jesus Christ and a greater familiarity with the prayers of the Church.
I also recommend planning ahead to attend some of the liturgies of the Triduum in any of our parishes. By inviting others to come with you to the Triduum services, you will be introducing them to some of the most profound liturgies that the Church has to offer. It is helpful to keep in mind the elderly, and to bring them to some of the parish spiritual activities in Lent. This will get them out of the house and connect them with other people. Whether you bring them to the Stations of the Cross or Mass or even a Fish Fry, you are helping them to feel less alone in this world.
Fasting Fasting includes any voluntary reduction of food, drink, or luxuries. From the beginning of Christian history, fasting and abstinence have been an integral part of the experience of Lent. This year, when we make changes in our eating habits and take on the self-denial of fasting or abstinence, we should allow our hunger to bring to mind our brothers and sisters around the world who go hungry every day. Our little pangs of hunger are nothing in comparison to the suffering of a person in a famine or in a town whose food supply has been cut off by war.
There are many ways to live out the practice of fasting, and it is good to try various expressions of this discipline in different years. For example, some choose to skip a meal on certain days of the week. Some do a juice fast. I know many who take on the ancient practice of going meatless for the entire season. A particularly powerful witness is to give up all consumption of alcohol during Lent. Fasting and abstinence can bring a new vibrancy to our prayer life. They also bear the potential to increase in us the virtue of solidarity. Solidarity is the attitude that says, “What happens to other people matters to me, even if I do not know those people personally.” If we pray for the poor and hungry while fasting, and apply the money saved by fasting to the needs of the poor, our fasting has a much deeper spiritual meaning.
Almsgiving Almsgiving includes acts of fraternal charity that express solidarity with the poor. It serves as a reminder of the Christian teaching that love of God goes hand in hand with love of neighbor. Through almsgiving, we are reminded that our spiritual lives must also be directed toward justice and charity. By recognizing the needs of those around us, we turn outward to the building of God’s kingdom in the world.
In our Lent this year, we should keep in mind that Pope Francis has urged us not to succumb to the “culture of indifference” toward the poor and the marginalized. By carrying out new acts of kindness and charity during Lent, the Lord stretches our hearts to be more loving, and he opens our mind to a greater awareness of the hardships suffered by our brothers and sisters. With God’s help, we might find our acts of service to be so fulfilling that we continue them after Lent has finished.
Throughout the Diocese of San Angelo, many of us will be using the little cardboard boxes of Operation Rice Bowl during the season of Lent. This project of Catholic Relief Services brings a tremendous amount of financial assistance to the poor and hungry, as well as to those who are struck by natural disasters around the world. Each time we put something in the box, we should offer a little prayer for those who will be helped by these funds.
For those who have children or teenagers in the home, it is especially important to use the Rice Bowl as a teaching tool to form the next generation to be sensitive to the needs of the poor. A good place to set the Rice Bowl is in the center of the kitchen table, to help the young members of the family to be more conscious of those who go hungry while we enjoy our healthy meals in the safety of our homes. Along with the Rice Bowls, Catholic Relief Services provides a Lenten prayer calendar that can be used for personal or group reflection.
On Good Friday, Catholic parishes around the world take up a special collection for the needs of Christians in the Holy Land. The proceeds from the Good Friday Collection are sent to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. The Franciscans have been caring for the holy sites there since 1209. They also assist the poor, run schools, provide scholarships, and conduct pastoral ministries to keep Christianity alive in the land where it originated. When we give to the Good Friday collection, we are concretely assisting the suffering Body of Christ in the Middle East.
A Turn Toward the Other Lent has already begun, but it is not too late to make the decision to take on practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that will help us turn toward the other in new and creative ways. Easter is not until April 16, so there is still time to take on some special Lenten disciplines that will make us more aware of and more responsive to the needs of our fellow human beings.