By MOST REV. DAVID M. O’CONNELL, CM
(Editor’s Note: Bishop David M. O’Connell heads the Diocese of Trenton, N.J. This message to his flock on how to make a good Lent is reprinted here with permission. All rights reserved.)
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When I was a boy growing up in a Catholic family, Lent was a big deal. Ash Wednesday was the beginning of a special time of the year unlike any other. My Mom, like her German mother before her, would make doughnuts on the Tuesday before — “Faschnaut Day” — clearing out kitchen cabinets and the icebox to make way for the forty days of sacrifice and penance that stretched out ahead of us. Those doughnuts were great and very different from the kind you get at doughnut chain stores today. They were sinkers . . . you could build a house with whatever was leftover!
All of us in the family had to make the “big decision” by that Tuesday…what were we going to “give up” for Lent? For my Dad it was easy: cigarettes or beer; for my Mom, some special treat she enjoyed; for us kids in the house it wasn’t so easy. Candy or desserts were usually at the top of the list. No matter what we chose, however, the point was always clear: We had to make a sacrifice during Lent and we had to stick to it until Easter! Add to that the required fasting and abstinence, and you know what? We survived. Lent didn’t kill any of us.
As with so many traditions in the Church, Lent evolved over the years. People began to emphasize more “giving” rather than “giving up.” The sober and serious tone of the forty days of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, became lighter and less intense. Sure, the Church continued to accent the penitential nature of Lent but it did so in different ways, stressing things that were more positive rather than negative. The obligation to sacrifice something ceased to be the first or most immediate item on the lenten agenda.
I am a great believer in the “both/and” rather than the “either/or” approach to life. And, so, for me Lent is a holy season of penance when I feel called, as a Catholic, by the very nature and purpose of Lent, to both “give up” and to “give” something.
In my own prayer and reflection as bishop of the diocese, I recognize my responsibility to guide the faithful of the diocese — clergy, religious, and laity alike — in living out our Christian life in pursuit of holiness. Lent is a time to intensify the pursuit of holiness as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s own Passion, death, and Resurrection, the central mysteries of our Catholic faith. And, so, together — bishop and clergy, religious and laity — let us focus our attention on the call to holiness that is at the heart of our lenten journey and at the heart of our life’s journey.
Each weekend we profess our common belief in “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.” I discussed these “four marks of the Church” at length in my first pastoral letter as bishop. There, I reminded us of the Scripture passage that says: “As He who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, ‘Be holy because I am holy’ (1 Peter 1:15-16).” The Church gives us the season of Lent as an aid in that process.
And here’s the motivation:
“. . .the Church’s call to holiness is rooted in Christ’s own invitation to be holy in imitation of Him. The holiness of the Church is not merely a reflection of but, rather, an identification with the very holiness of God. Can the Church be anything less than what God calls her to be in imitation of Him?” (Pastoral Letter, August 28, 2012).
That is a strong motivation to give Lent, and the growth in holiness it offers, our best shot. Yes, “giving up” something and making sacrifices are an important part of the lenten experience in the Church but if they don’t lead us to deeper holiness, a closer, life-altering identification with Jesus Christ and His Gospel, they are empty gestures. It’s like going on a diet for a while. We’ll lose some weight for sure but if we don’t make up our minds to change our eating behaviors or if we lose our motivation, the weight will only return and more.
Lent and its sacrifices should connect us on a deeper level with the Lord Jesus Christ, should lead us in a more profound way to a closer identification with Him who suffered and died on the cross for us. Giving up. Sacrifice. Every individual Catholic has to decide this Lent “what more can I do, can I give up for Him?” Lent should help us say, “With Christ, I am nailed to the cross. And the life I live is no longer my own. It is the life of Christ who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2: 19-20).
And the other part of the lenten “both/and” equation — giving something — needs to be addressed. As with sacrifice and penance, our lenten “giving” must lead us to holiness in Jesus Christ. He is the reason why we give. It is His face we see in the face of others. “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me” (Matt. 25:40).
Give Some Of Your Time
As bishop, I would like to offer a thought on something that can bring the “both/and” of Lent together for us and that is: time. Giving up my time so that I can give my time to others and grow in holiness.
As a boy, time seemed to hang heavy on my hands. I had a lot of it. I often wasted it. From what I hear from parents, that is not as true today. But as I grew into adulthood, time seemed to move more quickly and became more valuable, more precious.
Perhaps this Lent, whether we are young or old or somewhere in between, we can give some prayerful thought to “time” and how we can use it in our pursuit of holiness.
First, give time to God. Slow it all down and make time for God in prayer. Who could be more important than making time for the One who created us, who loves us as we are, who cares for us every moment of the day, who promised to be “with us all days” (Matt. 28:20), who will call us home after this life is done?
I mean, really. I can make time for just about anything else. Why can’t I find time for God? Why can’t I give up some time for Him?
1) Go to Mass. Less than 20 percent of Catholics in the Diocese of Trenton go to Mass every Saturday/Sunday. What else is so important, more important than giving up an hour or so once a week to hear God’s Word, to receive Him in the Eucharist, to bring our children and families to the Lord, to reflect on what is truly important in life, to join other Catholics in what the Second Vatican Council calls “the source and summit of the Christian life”?
It takes time but, honestly, not that much. Can I go to the gym or exercise later? Will the mall or grocery store still be there when I leave church? Will things that I need or want to do around the house disappear if I go to Mass for an hour once a week? Aren’t there several times each week when Mass is offered in my parish or another parish close by so that I can still do these other things?
Let me recommend that this Lent is a time for the decision to commit ourselves to give time to God and to get to church. Mass is not an option for the Catholic, it is an obligation and for good reason. We are faithful to other obligations. Why not give up some time to be faithful to that one? Lent is the perfect time to reconnect.
2) Personal prayer. One of the easiest things we can give up is the distractions that push God away. Prayer isn’t difficult. It is as simple as closing our eyes for a moment or two and just remembering that God is present everywhere, especially within us. God gives us everything and we are so blessed. Stop and say thanks.
We also have many challenges and concerns in life, things that even cause us suffering and heartache. Offer them to God and ask His guidance and help. We may feel alone at times. Remember that God is always with us. We sin. Ask God’s forgiveness. Go to Confession even if it’s been a long time. Why hold on to sins like they are some hidden treasure? Let go.
The old saying is on target: “Live as though everything depends upon you but pray like everything depends upon God.” Say prayers that you know. Pray in your own words. Give up a little more time for God this Lent.
Second, give time to others. Everyone is busy. Everyone has things to do. But everything that we are in life, everything that we have in life bears the “fingerprints” of someone else. Our parents; our children; our friends; our neighbors; our co-workers. Do we give them enough time? Could they use or do they really need just a little bit more time?
1) The elderly, especially elderly parents or members of the family. Would it hurt to call or visit them, to give them some time? Sometimes they just want someone to listen or to talk to them to remind them that they matter. Is our time so important that we cannot do this?
2) Our children. The world in which we live is sometimes a scary place. Our children don’t come with a set of instructions. There are forces out there willing or, worse, eager to drag them down or lead them along the wrong path. Alcohol. Drugs. Sex. Relationships. Bullying. Peer-pressure. A little more love and attention — a little more time — could make all the difference. They may act like they don’t want or need us. But they do.
3) People we know who are sick or alone or struggling. How about a call or visit to them or just making the time to sit down and write them a note or letter or even an e-mail? Are we that busy, too busy? It only takes a few minutes of our time.
4) On a larger scale, have we ever thought about giving our time as a volunteer to those with special needs? Not all our time, no, but some of it. The poor. The hungry. The homeless. The sick. Lent may be the time to give time as a path to holiness.
The Scriptures tell us that there are two great commands: Love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus Christ tells us that “the command I give you is this: Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Love takes time. Are we willing to give it up? Are we willing to give it? This Lent is the time to give an answer.