Lenten Message: Turn to Jesus through prayer, fasting, good works
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
As we begin the Season of Lent, these forty holy days, let us be aware of how important they are particularly this year. In these days, it truly seems that the Church is under attack. “Be alert. Your opponent, the devil, is prowling like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Ptr 5:8). Indeed, the devil has always sought to corrupt God’s great plan of salvation. Adam and Eve in their original innocence succumbed to his lies. When Moses descended Mount Sinai with the Law, God’s people had already fallen back into worshipping the golden calf. King Solomon’s great wisdom and success did not prevent him from introducing foreign cults and human sacrifice into Israel, to please his foreign wives. Israel was conquered and divided; King Herod sought to slay the infant Christ, but his butchery only hastened his downfall; Rome tried to stamp out the fledgling Church. But “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
This kind of persecution is not only an ancient part of our history. We see and feel it today. The devil loves tyranny because it serves him. Like its stepchildren slavery and abortion, tyranny dehumanizes. These crimes strengthen the powerful by robbing the weakest of their full human dignity. If some are exposed, all are in peril, and the Great Lie once again is that only the worldly powerful can protect. This is the essence of secularism, “worldliness,” what St. Augustine called “the city of man.” And in every case, to build up the city of man, the power of the Church must first be broken. For the Church proclaims the Truth, the Good News about Christ’s death and Resurrection, and our inviolable dignity and destiny to share in His eternal life. Thus, for example, the bloody persecution of the Church in Mexico in the 1930’s, or the arrests and intimidation of priests and bishops in China’s underground Catholic Church. Thus, also, the deadly, subtle, slow-motion uprooting of Christianity from our culture throughout the last century.
SOLDIERS FOR CHRIST
Christ calls us to fight for Him, for His Gospel and our Faith, just as He fought and conquered for us – not in worldly ways, but in moral and spiritual ways. We are “soldiers of Christ” by living the Faith with joy and zeal, despite the cost, evangelizing by example even more than in words. Lent is our time of preparation for the struggle. Lent is our “boot camp,” our “pre-season back-to-basics,” to get us back into spiritual shape. We belong by baptism to the “city of God,” where Christ alone is our King, our Law. Anything in our lives that prevents us from living the faith fully needs to be pruned back. Of course the sacraments, especially Confession and Holy Eucharist, help us to do this all the time, but Lent is the special time to focus on our spiritual fitness. The training of Lent always focuses on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (caring for the needy). As we grow in these, we will grow also in faith and courage.
The simplest act of our faith is prayer. Without prayer, faith cannot live. Prayer is not just us asking God for His blessings. It is most deeply listening to and being with God. Just as the prophet Elijah heard God’s voice in the quiet breeze, not in the thunderstorm or the earthquake, so too must we learn to pray with silence as well as words; to pray with listening as well as petitions; to adore and worship Him as well as to receive blessings from Him. When we spend time with the Word of God, Jesus Christ in person, in Sacred Scripture and in the most Blessed Sacrament, we start to learn, or to relearn, how to pray.
Both in Mass and outside of Mass, we need to turn again and again to Jesus the Word. To be well prepared to receive Jesus in the Mass, we should do two things. First, we should spend time reading and reflecting on the Scripture readings we will hear proclaimed at Mass. These readings are listed in every edition of our Catholic Globe, and are available in any Missal and on any number of websites. Everyone can take a few minutes during the week to pray a few times with these passages. Second, we should perform a frequent examination of conscience. Especially at the end of the day, we should take a few minutes to reflect on how we have and have not that day lived up to our sacramental identity of being Christ’s body in the world. These moments of silent and reflective prayer will seep into our souls, minds, and hearts, and shape us to be more faithfully devoted to our Lord Jesus Christ.
Outside the Mass, so many other forms of prayer are just as useful. I especially recommend the Rosary. This Lent I am asking that each of you join me in praying the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary each Friday of Lent. Let our intention be specifically for the preservation of Religious Freedom in our country. I also recommend the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and “lectio divina,” or structured meditations with Scripture, as a daily practice. If we don’t practice these or similar forms of listening to God on our own, how can we expect to hear and receive Him when we show up for Mass?
Especially during Lent, we practice fast and abstinence. “Fasting” means eating little or no food. “Abstinence” means not eating any meat. The Church asks us to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; a minimal fast means eating only one full meal that day, with two small meals and nothing between meals. Fasting is required of adults aged 18 to 60, unless illness prevents. We must also abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays in Lent. Friday abstinence throughout the year is also spiritually beneficial, and I encourage you to consider trying this very Catholic practice again. Lenten abstinence is required of all Catholics aged 14 and older. Some measure of fast and abstinence is also encouraged, especially in Lent, even for those for whom it is not required.
Another form of abstinence is the common practice of “giving something up” for Lent. This practice helps us to follow Christ our King more willingly and more unreservedly. What are the things that hold us back from giving everything to Him? What are the things about us we wouldn’t want our children to imitate? We can change a bad habit by not doing it for a while, or at least by doing less. We’re not supposed to return to the bad habit after Lent, either. Choose this kind of abstaining carefully, and, as I have encouraged you before, don’t just give it up for Lent; do so for the whole year! You will find Christ filling the place vacated by the bad habit, if you look for Him there.
Almsgiving, or charitable giving of one’s resources (time, talent, and treasure) to the needy, is another powerful Lenten training. If you don’t already do so, find a new way to give this year. Perhaps you have a relative or a neighbor who needs more of your time. Perhaps you could find a way to donate something you would otherwise just throw away. If you do already give alms, use this Lent to renew your commitment and your willingness or cheerfulness in giving.
Our Lenten discipline is without benefit if we have no desire for interior renewal. Only if we diligently practice prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, with an openness and true desire for some interior conversion, will our faith and zeal grow. We must, therefore, run also to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Here, especially, Christ unveils for us His holy face and most Sacred Heart, and with his gracious regard washes us free from sin. Really, how long has it been since your sins were forgiven in this great Sacrament of Confession? Do not be afraid!
As we begin again the season of Lent, recall that our most profound goal, the reason we are and remain Catholic despite every cost, is to love Jesus Christ first and above all – precisely because He loved us first, “while we were yet sinners.” We belong to the city of God, and we desire to remain there. We do not want to give up our citizenship in Heaven, and receive in return only passing worldly security. Christ is our light. Christ is our protection. Christ is our saving help. There is no other.
May our mutual prayers during this season of Lent strengthen in each of us the great gifts of faith, hope, and love, and bring us to true union with Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord!
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
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