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Lenten season: Use time to grow in faith, hope and love

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

As we begin the pilgrimage of Lent during this holy Year of Faith, let our Lord Jesus Christ into your heart! He longs to be enthroned in you, so that you may be fully united with Him in His saving Passion and Resurrection. These days of Lent allow us to prepare for that union, in this life and in the next.

Remember that “faith” means several things. Faith is first and foremost a divine gift. We receive this gift when we are baptized, or if we are older, when we clearly and freely express the desire to be baptized. Faith as gift is simply the desire for union with God. God gives us the power to believe, to want to be united with Him, so that we may share Christ’s new life in the sacraments.

Faith is therefore also that we believe in the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ. The act of believing, of having faith, is not merely having an opinion about spiritual realities, nor making a choice among possible options. It is a firm and certain conviction, inseparable from the fact that this gift of faith is something received from outside of us. “The Gospel I preached is not something man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” (Gal 1:12) If there is a gift, there must be a Giver. To believe is simply to accept the gift, and therefore to have a friendship with God which comes before every other experience and reality.

Faith therefore expresses itself in certain ways. It has a shape, a content, consistent with the gift and reception of such a desire for union with God. Faith is moreover not only individual, but also historical. The content of faith, the “what” which fills and expresses that saving relationship, is the actuality of God giving the gift of faith, from Abraham to today. The Covenant with Israel prepared for the Covenant with Christ, which is the Church. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Mt 28:19, Catechism of the Catholic Church #2) Thus faith is necessarily “one,” the same for all; and “holy,” because it is from God; and “Catholic,” universal and unchanging; and “of the apostles,” because of the actual ministry of Jesus Christ in this life.

This “what” of faith includes not only the statements of faith, like the Creed we recite each Sunday, but also the daily living out of what those statements mean. “All Christ’s faithful are called to hand it on from generation to generation, by professing the faith, by living it in fraternal sharing, and by celebrating it in liturgy and prayer.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #3) To be Catholic, then, is only to hold this gift of faith firmly as the unshakable bedrock of our life, and to desire, not only for ourselves but also for all those around us, to be one with God in the Church, as we profess it, live it, and celebrate it.

But we must all admit that there is a great deal of our daily life which is not of the faith. Hence we need the season of Lent for our ongoing conversion. We need to chip away at those parts of our life where faith is not our bedrock and desire, not what we clearly profess, live, and celebrate. And we need the help of the Church to do so, in the sacrament of Confession and in mutual encouragement.

Lent calls us to renew our faith through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Growing in faith always starts with a return to prayer. At its heart, prayer is spending time with God. This is why prayer is essential to strong faith; how can we desire to be with God, if we are not willing to spend time with Him?

The Church’s sacraments and liturgies are indispensable forms of prayer. The Church reminds us that it is a serious sin to miss Mass on a Sunday or holy day of obligation, except for a grave reason such as illness. But we also need to be well prepared to enter into this prayer. We can be well prepared for the Holy Mass by reading the Mass readings beforehand, so that we can truly listen to the Word of God being poured into our hearts. We can also attempt a regular examination of conscience, worship our Lord outside of Mass in the Holy Eucharist, and pray every day in other ways. All these will help us be truly present to God in the Holy Mass and to grow more and more eager to be joined with Him in the sacrifice of the altar.

Our daily prayers can be quite varied. St. Paul tells us to “pray without ceasing,” and we can strive to do this by having the simplest prayers – “Thank you, God,” or “Praised be Jesus Christ,” or “Lord, help me” – ready in our mind at all times. We can read and pray the words of Scripture each day. We can pray a daily Rosary, or the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, or one of the many Litanies available to us in the Church. We can pray by contemplating God and His joyful and merciful works in the depths of our hearts, with or without words.

And of course, a life of prayer leads also to the sacrament of Confession. The more time we spend in God’s presence, the more we will desire to be pleasing to Him, and the more we will recognize and try to avoid the reality of sin in our lives. The opposite is also true; when our hearts are not filled with prayer, we can so easily fall into pride and selfishness. This is why Confession is an underused treasure. I urge everyone to go to Confession at least once during Lent.

During Lent, we also 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. All of us who are 14 years and older must also abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays in Lent. Friday abstinence throughout the year is also spiritually beneficial, and I again encourage you to try this very Catholic practice. Some measure of fast and abstinence is also encouraged, 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 desire, and to practice, deeper union with God. 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 this 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 is the charitable giving of one’s resources (time, talent, and treasure) to the needy. 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.

My dear friends, use well this season of Lent, and this whole Year of Faith, to grow in faith, hope, and love. We who bear the name of Christ are not concerned only with our own individual souls, but with the salvation of all. Christ died for all, and shares His mission with every member of His Church. If we are complacent about our faith, we rob our neighbor of our hope and love, and of the graces God would give them through the witness of our faith. May the mercy and love of God overflow in your heart, so that every day you may give joyful witness to Him with every part of your life.

Your brother in Christ,

Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless,
Bishop of Sioux City

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