Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Once again, the beginning of Lent is upon us – so early this year! Especially in this Year of Mercy, we look to our Lord Jesus Christ, the font of mercy, with contrition and penance for our sins. Trusting in his mercy, we seek 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 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 submit to the model of Christ’s passion. Just as he chose to follow the Father’s perfect will with perfect obedience, even knowing what it would cost him, so do we promise always to try to do God’s will as well as we can. Just as he gave up his life on the cross for us, so do we promise to give up our lives, our false worldly desires and selfish ambitions, 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 example of that conversion, turning away from worldly things and turning to the life and salvation found only in union with Jesus Christ.
The journey of Lent, therefore, always includes increased efforts 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. The 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 wonderful way for us to hear God’s teaching us 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 forty-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, and that Christ knows this and loves us! He always gives us his mercy without limit, if only we truly desire to change our heart and be forgiven.
In this Year of Mercy, may we also give each other the gift of patience and encouragement, so that together we may all become more like our Lord Jesus Christ. 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. 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. “By his stripes, we are healed” (Is 53:5). 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. 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