What does Lent mean to Catholics?
For many, it means to give something up.
While that answer isn’t necessarily wrong, neither certainly is it complete.
Since the early days of the church, Lenten sacrifice has combined prayer, fasting and almsgiving — but in recent history popular perception has focused almost exclusively on fasting and abstinence. "Prior to Vatican II, the impetus of the church was our own salvation — we needed to suffer to be purified. Fasting and abstinence made us suffer; therefore, we became better; and so, we are closer to salvation," Father Thomas Mull, pastor of Our Lady of Peace in Geneva, explained to the Catholic Courier in 2005 when he was pastor of St. Mary Parish in Canandaigua.
Yet the Second Vatican Council stressed that prayer and almsgiving are equally vital, as we focus not only on ourselves, but on the world around us. Whereas giving up something — whether candy, coffee or cocktails — remains a common Lenten goal, numerous diocesan parishes are striving to add "do’s" to this season of "don’ts." This is accomplished through such activities as parish missions; lecture series; Bible study; gatherings of small Christian communities; and fundraising efforts for local, national and international causes.
And in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis pointed out that Lent also should be a time to demonstrate and share the faith through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
"Faith finds expression in concrete everyday actions meant to help our neighbors in body and spirit," the pope said in his message for Lent, which was released at the Vatican Jan. 26.
Feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, welcoming strangers, offering instruction, giving comfort — "on such things will we be judged," the pope wrote in the message.
Particularly during the Year of Mercy, he said, Catholics are called to recognize their own need for God’s mercy, the greatness of God’s love seen in the death and resurrection of Christ, and the obligation to assist others by communicating God’s love and mercy through words and deeds.
"In the corporal works of mercy we touch the flesh of Christ in our brothers and sisters who need to be fed, clothed, sheltered, visited," he wrote. "In the spiritual works of mercy — counsel, instruction, forgiveness, admonishment and prayer — we touch more directly our own sinfulness."
In the Christian life, Pope Francis said, "the corporal and spiritual works of mercy must never be separated."
Contains reporting by Catholic News Service.