Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Once again, the beginning of Lent is upon us. This is the time of contrition and penance for our sins, and a deeper conversion of heart to love God and neighbor more perfectly. We are preparing to go deeper into the great mysteries of our holy faith, revealed in the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ at Easter. We cannot enter these mysteries fully without the effort to purge our heart of sinful attachments. And so these weeks of Lent are a great gift to us. If we use them well, we will be ready for the Easter renewal of our life in Christ.
Yesterday we celebrated Ash Wednesday. As we recall, the ashes put on our foreheads are made from the palms of Palm Sunday. These palms symbolize both Jesus’s true kingship over sin and death, and the false and worldly expectations for Jesus’s kingship, which would make him just another false political savior. By burning these palms and using them at the beginning of Lent, we show our rejection of false worldly promises, and our embrace of the cross, the only path to heaven. Our fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday, like that of Good Friday and the abstinence from meat on all the Fridays of Lent (or even throughout the whole year), are a concrete manifestation and practice of that same conversion, turning away from worldly things and turning to the life and salvation found only in union with Jesus Christ.
Now our journey of Lent continues, with increased efforts in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (giving to those in need). We should certainly pray more during Lent. It’s important to make good use of 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 illumine our recognition of his will and action in our lives.
The manner of prayer called “lectio divina” or “holy reading” is one of the best forms of cultivating silence in prayer. In lectio divina, we read a passage of Scripture slowly two or three times. Then, we invite the Holy Spirit to speak to us and rest silently in the word for a few minutes. It takes practice to set aside the distractions of our daily life, but I assure you, if you persevere in the effort, you will find God speaking to you in this silence. Usually he does so by causing words, ideas, or images to arise in our mind. We must examine these carefully to be sure they are holy and not a subtle temptation, but this is a normal way for us to hear God’s “voice” every day.
Lent is also the time for fasting and abstaining from meat. 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 an avenue of 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. “The Lord loves a cheerful giver!” (2 Cor 9:7).
Dear brothers and sisters, remember that we are all poor, weak sinners. We must give each other the gift of patience and encouragement, so that together we may all become more like our Lord Jesus Christ. Remember above all 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. He proved his love for us on the cross, when he gave his very life for us, so that we could be healed from sin and the unrepentant death that leads to eternal damnation.
We strive to grow in holiness and in union with him, to imitate his perfect example, as our loving response to his love for us. We desire contrition and repentance for our sins, especially in the holy sacrament of confession, only because we know he loves us.
Please remember that all of our priests will be hearing confessions from 5 to 7 p.m. on March 3. “The Light Is On For You” is an effort to make going to confession more convenient for you and your family. The disciplines of Lent are not so that we can suffer, but they free us for a more perfect and Christ-like love. Only by loving in union with his love can we gain the reward of heaven.
May this season of Lent bring you many graces and blessings as we grow in our faith, hope and love!
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City