Tuesday, March 5, 2019




Diocese of Arlington

Lent is a special time of prayer, penance, sacrifice and good works in preparation of the celebration of Easter. In the desire to renew the liturgical practices of the Church, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican Council II stated, "The two elements which are especially characteristic of Lent — the recalling of baptism or the preparation for it, and penance — should be given greater emphasis in the liturgy and in liturgical catechesis. It is by means of them that the Church prepares the faithful for the celebration of Easter, while they hear God's word more frequently and devote more time to prayer" (no. 109). The word Lent itself is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words lencten, meaning "Spring," and lenctentid, which literally means not only "Springtide" but also was the word for "March," the month in which the majority of Lent falls.
Since the earliest times of the Church, there is evidence of some kind of Lenten preparation for Easter. For instance, St. Irenaeus (d. 203) wrote to Pope St. Victor I, commenting on the celebration of Easter and the differences between practices in the East and the West: "The dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the fast. Some think that they ought to fast for one day, some for two, others for still more; some make their 'day' last 40 hours on end. Such variation in the observance did not originate in our own day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers" (Eusebius, History of the Church, V, 24). When Rufinus translated this passage from Greek into Latin, the punctuation made between "40" and "hours" made the meaning to appear to be "40 days, twenty-four hours a day." The importance of the passage, nevertheless, remains that since the time of "our forefathers" — always an expression for the apostles — a 40-day period of Lenten preparation existed. However, the actual practices and duration of Lent were still not homogenous throughout the Church.

Lent becomes more regularized after the legalization of Christianity in A.D. 313. The Council of Nicea (325), in its disciplinary canons, noted that two provincial synods should be held each year, "one before the 40 days of Lent." St. Athanasius (d. 373) in this "Festal Letters" implored his congregation to make a 40-day fast prior to the more intense fasting of Holy Week. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386) in his Catechectical Lectures, which are the paradigm for our current RCIA programs, had 18 pre-baptismal instructions given to the catechumens during Lent. St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) in his series of "Festal Letters" also noted the practices and duration of Lent, emphasizing the 40-day period of fasting. Finally, Pope St. Leo (d. 461) preached that the faithful must "fulfill with their fasts the Apostolic institution of the 40 days," again noting the apostolic origins of Lent. One can safely conclude that by the end of the fourth century, the 40-day period of Easter preparation known as Lent existed, and that prayer and fasting constituted its primary spiritual exercises.

Of course, the number "40" has always had special spiritual significance regarding preparation. On Mount Sinai, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments, "Moses stayed there with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights, without eating any food or drinking any water" (Ex 34:28). Elijah walked "40 days and 40 nights" to the mountain of the Lord, Mount Horeb (another name for Sinai) (I Kgs 19:8). Most importantly, Jesus fasted and prayed for "40 days and 40 nights" in the desert before He began His public ministry (Mt 4:2).

Once the 40 days of Lent were established, the next development concerned how much fasting was to be done. In Jerusalem, for instance, people fasted for 40 days, Monday through Friday, but not on Saturday or Sunday, thereby making Lent last for eight weeks. In Rome and in the West, people fasted for six weeks, Monday through Saturday, thereby making Lent last for six weeks. Eventually, the practice prevailed of fasting for six days a week over the course of six weeks, and Ash Wednesday was instituted to bring the number of fast days before Easter to 40. The rules of fasting varied. First, some areas of the Church abstained from all forms of meat and animal products, while others made exceptions for food like fish. For example, Pope St. Gregory (d. 604), writing to St. Augustine of Canterbury, issued the following rule: "We abstain from flesh, meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese and eggs."

Second, the general rule was for a person to have one meal a day, in the evening or at 3 p.m.

These Lenten fasting rules also evolved. Eventually, a smaller repast was allowed during the day to keep up one's strength from manual labor. Eating fish was allowed, and later eating meat was also allowed through the week except on Ash Wednesday and Friday. Dispensations were given for eating dairy products if a pious work was performed, and eventually this rule was relaxed totally. (However, the abstinence from even dairy products led to the practice of blessing Easter eggs and eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.)

Over the years, modifications have been made to the Lenten observances, making our practices not only simple but also easy. Ash Wednesday still marks the beginning of Lent, which lasts for 40 days, not including Sundays. The present fasting and abstinence laws are very simple: On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the faithful fast (having only one full meal a day and smaller snacks to keep up one's strength) and abstain from meat; on the other Fridays of Lent, the faithful abstain from meat. People are still encouraged "to give up something" for Lent as a sacrifice. (An interesting note is that technically on Sundays and solemnities like St. Joseph's Day (March 19) and the Annunciation (March 25), one is exempt and can partake of whatever has been offered up for Lent.

Nevertheless, I was always taught, "If you gave something up for the Lord, tough it out. Don't act like a Pharisee looking for a loophole." Moreover, an emphasis must be placed on performing spiritual works, like attending the Stations of the Cross, attending Mass, making a weekly holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament, taking time for personal prayer and spiritual reading and most especially making a good confession and receiving sacramental absolution. Although the practices may have evolved over the centuries, the focus remains the same: to repent of sin, to renew our faith and to prepare to celebrate joyfully the mysteries of our salvation.

Sunday, March 3, 2019


Why do you notice the splinter in your brother's eye,
but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?
How can you say to your brother,
'Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,'
when you do not even notice the wooden beam 
in your own eye?You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam 
from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove
 the splinter in your brother's eye.
Luke 6


There is a constant stream of condemnation these days coming from religious leaders because of society’s “opposition to our values.” More and more religious blogs, websites and pastoral letters decry “moral relativism” and “secularism.” While most of what they say is true, I believe simple condemnation of others is a cheap way for designated spiritual leaders to feel good about themselves. If what they say is true, then we need to look at how we have failed our culture and quit blaming those we are called to lead. Instead of asking, "what's wrong with you people?" I think we should be asking ourselves, "what's wrong with us?" 

Personally, I like to shift the focus from them to me. “How can I improve my ability to influence the culture?” “How can I be more effective as a spiritual leader?” Why is what I am doing, and the way I am doing it, not working? Why am I not able to "sell" our values and convince people to "buy into" our message?

I have always been moved by the words of St. Gregory the Great who wrote the classic On Pastoral Care. “Although those who have no knowledge of the power of drugs shrink from presenting themselves as physicians of the flesh, there are those who are utterly ignorant of spiritual precepts but not afraid of professing themselves to be physicians of the heart.” What he is saying is this: if we claim to be serious spiritual leaders worth listening to, then we need to be able to deliver on those claims - we need to be spiritual leaders in fact, not just in name!

When I taught future priests over at Saint Meinrad Seminary, the next generation of spiritual leaders in the forefront of the Church, I told them, over and over again, that it is not good enough for them to be personally pious, they must be able to be effective as spiritual leaders if they are to influence today’s culture. In other words, it is not enough for their parishioners to see golden light coming out of their rectories, they must be able to drive through their parishes and see golden light coming out of the homes of their parishioners.

Instead of tedious and grating condemnations and criticisms of our culture, I think it would be more helpful for those of us in church leadership to step back periodically and ask ourselves where we have failed that has allowed things to have gotten this bad. Why were we not able to influence the culture more effectively? If we supposedly have “the Truth,” why do people not listen to us? The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche may have some advice for us. “Let us stop thinking so much about punishing, criticizing and improving others. Instead, let us rather raise ourselves that much higher. Let us color our own example with ever more vividness.”

Why do you notice the splinter in your brother's eye,
but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?

In the last ten years, I have lectured at priest retreats, convocations and study days, usually a week at a time, in over one hundred dioceses in ten countries. My topic is usually about the quality of our spiritual leadership and our need to get better at it. This year I will be in Crookston (Minnesota), Bellville (Illinois), Saginaw (Michigan), Grand Island (Nebraska) and Pembroke (Canada). Here is a list of the eight conferences I am giving this year to the bishops, priests and sometimes deacons around this country and in Canada.  It is mostly about challenging them to become more effective spiritual leaders. 

“When the Things You Gave Your Life to Falls Apart”
“Quit Whining and Put on Your Big Boy Pants! It’s Time for Serious Priesting”
“Put the Oxygen Mask on Yourself First Before Assisting Others”
“Give Me a Break: Saying No to Gossip, Jealousy and Suspicion”
The Jonah Complex: The Convenience and Selfishness of Playing Small”
“Throwing Off the Crush of Garbage: The Power of Forgiveness”
“The Show Must Go On: We Don’t Have the Luxury of Coming Unglued”
“Crossing the Desert: An Exodus Spirituality for Our Times”

Maybe our biggest problem in the church today is the failure of religious leadership and the shortage of credible witnesses in our culture among the laity in general. Maybe we need to remove the beams in our own eyes, so that we can see better to remove the splinters in the eyes of those around us.

Why do you notice the splinter in your brother's eye,
but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?
How can you say to your brother,
'Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,'
when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye?
You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your eye first;
then you will see clearly
to remove the splinter in your brother's eye.
Luke 6