The Most Reverend Thomas John Paprocki reflected in his weekly column in the Catholic Times on the importance and value of Lenten disciplines of increased prayer, fasting and alms-giving.
His text follows, with my emphases:
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Ash Wednesday falls on March 9 this year, marking the beginning of the season of Lent. In the Gospel for Ash Wednesday, Jesus reminds us that prayer, fasting and almsgiving are three key ways for us to make the most of this sacred season.
Prayer, of course, is something that people of faith should do every day, not just during Lent. Prayer is our conversation with God, and such conversation is not relegated or limited to certain times of year. For example, the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office or Breviary, is a form of prayer used by priests, deacons, nuns and some lay people to mark the rhythms of each day. Morning prayer, daytime prayer, evening prayer and night prayer keep us and our activities connected to God during the different times of day.
Just as each day has different times, there are different seasons during the course of the year. The church also observes these seasons in her liturgical calendar, with special prayers for Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter. The rest of the year we call Ordinary Time, not because it is ordinary in the sense of being plain or routine, but because it marks the orderly progression of time from one week to the next.
Many parishes offer not only increased opportunities for prayer during Lent, but also different forms of prayer such as a Lenten mission and the Stations of the Cross.
Regarding fasting during Lent, many people fast with the hope that they will lose weight, especially the extra pounds accumulated during the Christmas season. There is nothing wrong with such a goal, as God wants us not only to avoid the sin of gluttony, but also to look out for our health. I believe that the old maxim, “a sound mind in a sound body” is a worthwhile objective, and I try to live by it.
But ultimately our Lenten fasts are not merely weight reduction programs designed to reduce corpulent figures, but a means for helping us stay connected to God. When we are hungry and thirsty, we are reminded that the deepest hungers and thirsts of our hearts are satisfied only by God. When we become aware of our longings and desires, we are reminded that the deepest longing and desire we can have is to be connected in a close and loving relationship with God. When we are tempted to become attached to a life of conspicuous consumption of rich foods, exotic drinks, expensive cars, luxurious homes, fashionable clothes, gaudy jewelry and sexual pleasure, we are reminded that the only attachment of our hearts that matters when all is said and done is for our hearts to be attached to God.
Fasting during Lent can also be an opportunity not just to limit our own consumption, but also become more mindful of those who lack the basic necessities of life. Operation Rice Bowl is one such way of helping the hungry.
St. Paul wrote that athletes deny themselves all kinds of things in order to win a perishable crown, but Christians deny themselves in order to win a crown that will never wither or fade, namely, life eternal in God’s heavenly kingdom.
Regarding almsgiving, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (par. 2462), says, “Giving alms to the poor is a witness to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God.” A person usually does not have to look very far to find opportunities to help the poor. Often our daily mail delivers scores of solicitations from charitable organizations, many of them quite worthy, who perform a variety of benevolent works. Sometimes we encounter beggars or homeless people on the street. There are various approaches that we can take in response. Some people are willing to give a small amount of cash to strangers they meet. Others will give them coupons for food that they can use at local restaurants or grocery stores. Another approach is to refer these people to responsible social service agencies, such as Catholic Charities.
Perhaps the most commonplace for our charitable giving is the collection basket at Mass. In this case our donations are more than just charity, they are obligations required by the fifth precept of the church, “You shall help to provide for the needs of the church.” This means that the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the church, each according to his own ability (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2043). This “ability” will vary from person to person, of course, so I would like to offer a suggestion that I had made when I was pastor of a parish: each person’s first hour of work should be dedicated to God, meaning that you should give your first hour’s pay each week as a donation to the church. In this way, the dollar amount will depend on how much you are paid, but the time dedicated to earning that pay (one hour) will be the same for each person.
Remember the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible? Abel brought an offering to God from the firstlings of his flock, while Cain’s offering was not so generous. The Bible tells us that the Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but did not look favorably on Cain or his offering. Cain resented this, and the bitterness of his resentment led Cain to kill his brother Abel. (See Genesis 4: 3-8.) If we are generous with God, he will reward us. If we are not generous, our selfishness will lead to bitterness and resentment.
Through prayer, fasting and almsgiving during this upcoming Lenten season, with God’s grace we can overcome our self-centeredness and become more focused on God, leading us further on the path to holiness.
May God give us this grace. Amen.