Each year the Church calls us to enter wholeheartedly the penitential season of Lent in response to Our Lord’s challenge to be converted and to be a people of penance.
The word “penance” means a turning away from sin or, positively, a turning to God to do His will. Jesus provided us with a pattern of penance when He began His public life, going out into the desert to fast and pray for 40 days and nights.
Our observance of Lent must be more than a ritual. We must truly be penitent and converted in heart. We need to examine our lives and recognize the role sin has played in the things done and those left undone. Interior repentance can lead us to a profound conversion to God.
The great fathers and teachers of the Church taught us that this conversion of heart will stir up an interior sadness which they called an affliction of the spirit, occasioned by our past failures. At the same time, they spoke of this sadness giving rise to a true heartfelt repentance. This is a special grace of God, who makes our heart return to Him.
The Church has always taught that saving acts of penance include prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These correspond to the fact that our sins offend God, self and neighbor.
In prayer, we seek the mercy and forgiveness of God and His grace to persevere in doing good. Fasting and other acts of mortification are aimed at the conquest of self. St. Paul compares this to the rigors of training by an athlete preparing for a race. Almsgiving and acts of charity are directed to making reparation for the harm done to others by our sinfulness.
St. Peter advised us that our charity toward others must be sincere “for love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Taken together these reflect a genuine repentence of heart. This is why the great spiritual writers have consistently described Lent as a special season of grace.
We pray that God’s grace will lead us in a wise and fruitful use of this time of penance.