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THEOLOGY | Lent is a threefold call to conversion

In this liturgical season of Lent, the Church calls us to focus in a heightened way on acts of interior penance – on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. This commitment reflects a threefold call to conversion in relation to God (prayer), oneself (fasting) and others (almsgiving). (See CCC 1434).


Prayer involves three central expressions: vocal, meditation and contemplative (CCC 2700-24). Vocal prayer recognizes that we are embodied creatures who communicate with one another through language. It enables us to pray in community. Jesus taught His disciples to vocally pray the Our Father and embodied vocal prayer in the synagogue, in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross.

Meditation indicates a deepening of our interior prayer, engaging our imagination, feelings, thoughts and desires. It reveals our deep thirsting for God. The “book” of our life is confronted, challenged and consoled by the books of sacred wisdom. The Christian tradition offers a wealth of meditation methods: Lectio Divina (reflection on the scriptures), the Rosary, icons, reading the spiritual masters, and many more.

Contemplation, as St. Teresa of Avila suggests, is “nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.” If meditation emphasizes human seeking, contemplation is more like a resting in the good. It is a silent, loving union with Christ, who shares his mystery with us. In the words of St. John Vianney, “I look at him and he looks at me.”


Observing days of fasting and abstinence is one of the five precepts of the Church. Fasting gives us the strength to order our desires, to master our instincts, and to experience an interior freedom of the heart. It units us to the mystery of Jesus in the desert — the high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses and who has been tested like us in every way, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).

As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reflected in his last Ash Wednesday audience as pope, “the wilderness to which Jesus withdrew is the place of silence and poverty, where man is deprived of material support and faces the fundamental existential questions; where he is driven to the essential and for this very reason can more easily encounter God.” Even in these troubled times, Benedict added, “The Lord never tires of knocking at man’s door in social and cultural milieus that seem engulfed in secularization.” Fasting with Christ in the desert creates the conditions for discovering God and offers us the strength to resist the temptations of our age.


St. Thomas Aquinas defined almsgiving as an act of charity performed through the medium of mercy. Hence, Aquinas distinguishes between two kinds of almsgiving: spiritual and corporeal. Spiritual almsgiving includes such acts as counseling, instructing, consoling and forgiving. Corporeal almsgiving involves feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick, and many other acts that address the bodily needs of our neighbor.

Reflecting on her experience of being imprisoned, Dorothy Day turned her heart to the marks of Lent: “I am convinced that prayer and austerity, prayer and self-sacrifice, prayer and fasting, prayer, vigils and marches, are the indispensable means. And love. All these means are useless unless animated by love.”

Lenten regulations

Lent starts on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 14) and continues through Holy Saturday (March 31).

The Pope and the American bishops outline obligatory fast and abstinence as follows:

Ash Wednesday (Feb. 14) and Good Friday (March 30) are days of abstinence for all Catholics over the age of 14. On these two days, fast, as well as abstinence, is also obligatory for those from the ages of 18-59. Abstinence means refraining from meat. Fast means one full meal a day, with two smaller meals and nothing between meals (liquids are permitted). No Catholic will lightly excuse himself or herself from this obligation.

All Fridays in Lent are days of abstinence from meat. Here again Catholics will not hold themselves lightly excused, but if there is a serious health problem, this obligation would not apply. We should strive to make all days of Lent a time of prayer and penance.

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