Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Next week, we begin once again the holy season of Lent. The mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ reaches out to us, inviting us to a deeper conversion and union with him. The saving mysteries of his suffering, Passion, death and resurrection should transform our life, elevating us beyond the miry messes of the world into the purity of divine love. We cannot enter these mysteries fully without striving to purge our heart of sinful attachments and desires. And so, these weeks of Lent are a great and necessary gift to us. If we use them well, we will be ready for the Easter renewal of our life in Christ.
In the celebration of Ash Wednesday, we seek to conform ourselves to the model of Christ’s Passion. Just as he willingly followed the Father’s perfect will with loving obedience, even knowing what it would cost him, so do we renew our effort to do God’s will as best we can. Just as he gave up his life on the cross for us, so do we offer up our lives for the sake of our vocation and our neighbor’s good.
To carry out these promises, we must have a deeper conversion of heart. Our fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday, like that of Good Friday and the abstinence on all the Fridays of Lent (or even throughout the whole year), are a concrete manifestation and practice of that conformity, rejecting with Christ selfish and worldly things, embracing with him the sacrifice that brings total union with God.
The journey of Lent, therefore, leads us into a practice of sacrificial love, especially in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We should certainly try to pray more during Lent. It’s a good thing to embrace our distinctly Catholic prayers, such as the rosary and the Chaplet of Mercy. I urge you strongly to pray either or both of these prayers more frequently, even daily, especially during Lent.
We must also make our prayer an opportunity for listening to God, not just expecting him to listen to us. Silence in prayer is so important, to give God room to talk in our hearts and open up our acceptance of his will for us. Whatever form of prayer we use, cultivating that silence of listening to God and not rushing to get to the end will bear great and joyful fruit.
Lent is also the time for fasting and abstaining from meat. Fasting teaches us detachment from the world and to recognize spiritual goods. A little fasting should always be part of our spiritual life.
I have already mentioned the two fasting days, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and the meatless Fridays. Younger children and the elderly, and those whose health requires it, are not obliged to either fast or abstain, but it is also worthwhile for all of us to do more than the minimum in this regard.
There is also the fast of “giving something up” for Lent. This practice is a concrete way of joining ourselves to the 40-day fast of Jesus Christ in the desert, and to his holy Passion. In this sense, giving something up for Lent forms us deeply as disciples and prepares us for our own death and judgment. Once again I encourage you to consider carefully how you will share in this important spiritual discipline, and how you can continue to practice this after Lent is over.
Almsgiving is often overlooked as a spiritual discipline during Lent. Everything we have comes to us as a gift from God. When we deliberately choose to give away what we have, seeking only someone else’s good and not any worldly glory, we are increasing God’s love in the world, and making his gifts bear even more fruit.
There are, of course, many worthy charities to which we can donate money or time. Such giving is valuable, both for the good we can do, and for the spiritual growth we can cultivate. We could also seek out less organized, more individual and spontaneous opportunities to practice a deeper generosity with our time, talent, and treasure.
Remember also that Christ advises us to practice these spiritual disciplines without seeking worldly approval. If we pray, fast, and give alms in order to win applause for our generosity and piety, we’re clearly working against the spirit of Lent. We should continue to present a joyful face to the world, even while we are turning more to God interiorly. That way, it is the work of Christ in us that the world sees.
Dear brothers and sisters, we are all poor, weak sinners, and Christ knows this and still loves us. He always gives us his mercy without limit, if only we truly desire to change our heart and be forgiven. Always believe that his love for us is absolute and unconditional. He loves us in our sins. He loves us in our weakness. He loves us in our struggles.
The discipline of Lent, these sacrifices and struggles to be clearer reflections of God’s perfect love, are not called for so that we should suffer, but so that we can be truly free to love him in return. Praise God for his mercy and strive to live united to him.
May this season of Lent bring you many blessings as we grow in our faith, hope and love. May you receive the Lord’s mercy anew and be filled with all his grace.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City