NEXT…on this Sunday today’s read is from Fr. William Rock, FSSP. The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) is a clerical Society of Apostolic Life of Pontifical Right, canonically erected by Pope St. John Paul II in 1988. Their priests serve in apostolates across the world. The members of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, nourished through the spiritual riches of the Church’s ancient Roman Liturgy, strive to sanctify the seminarians, religious and faithful entrusted to their pastoral care.
According to the universal Law of the Western Church, during Lent, the faithful 14 years and older are obligated to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays. Those ages 18 to 59 inclusive are held to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday – that is, they are permitted one full meal and two smaller collations which, when combined, are less than a full meal. Additionally, the Season of Lent itself is a season of penance and the faithful are called to perform acts of penance on the 40 Days. These other acts of penance are not prescribed by the Church and are left to the discretion of each individual. But prior to the start of Lent, in the traditional Roman Liturgical Calendar, is the season of Septuagesima. As Pre-Lent, this season serves as a transition from the Time after Epiphany to Lent. It is a fitting time, then, for each member of the Church to consider what exercises each will undertake so that Lent can begin without any hesitation or befuddlement.
Before investigating the ways the faithful may currently fulfil their Lenten observance, it is profitable to understand how our Christian forefathers would have observed their Lents. In 1962 universally, Ash Wednesday, Holy Saturday, and all of the Fridays of the year were days of complete abstinence, while the remaining days of Lent, except Sundays, were days of partial abstinence, that is, meat could only be taken at the principal meal. All of the days of Lent, except Sundays, were also days of fasting. So, in 1962, all the days of Lent, except Sundays, were days of fasting with either complete or partial abstinence.
Earlier, according to the 1917 Code of Canon Law, every Friday was a day of complete abstinence; Ash Wednesday and every Friday and Saturday of Lent were days of complete abstinence and fast; all other days of Lent, except Sundays, were days of fasting.
Turning to the Lenten practices one may undertake today during Lent, it should first be understood that for an act to be penitential it must satisfy two requirements. The first is that the act must be a good act so that it redounds to God’s honor. Therefore, no sin could even be an act of penance. Secondly, the act must have a penal character to it. This means that the one performing the act must suffer some hardship or loss, even if only minor. So, eating a bowl of one’s favorite ice cream or reading one’s favorite book would not be penitential acts. This also means that “trying to be better” in this or that regard – “being more charitable” for example – if there is no discernable penal aspect, if there is no discernable hardship, would not meet the requirements for being penitential. Additionally, for things such as “trying to be more charitable” and the like, there is no tangible way to measure if one on any given day was actually “better” in this regard. Not that such things should not be undertaken, but they do not make for good penances. Lent is first and foremost a time of penance, not self-improvement. Self-improvement, greater sanctity, should result, but as something secondary. The primary purpose of penance is to make reparation for sin. Again, for an act to be penitential, it must be a good act which causes some hardship or loss to the one performing that act. The Church and her spiritual writers describe three classes or types of penance.
First, the Church and her spiritual writers place fasting. But fasting here should not be understood simply as refraining from food or the fasting imposed by Canon Law, as described at the start of the article. By fasting, the spiritual writers mean any form of bodily mortification. The body can be mortified or disciplined either by depriving it of something it desires or by inflicting some moderate amount of pain or discomfort on it. When determining one’s own penances, items or activities could also be given up so long as the non-use or non-enjoyment of them inflicts some degree of hardship or loss on the one who gives them up.
There are many ways one can inflict some moderate amount of pain or discomfort on one’s body. One can sleep on the floor or in something less comfortable than one’s bed. One can also take cold showers or eat or drink something unpleasant, but not harmful. For example, some find tomato juice to be disgusting, but choose to drink it as a way of mortifying the body. Putting a small pebble in the shoe is another way this can be accomplished. While at prayer, if one is accustomed to sit or stand, one could spend the entire time of prayer kneeling or perhaps with the arms stretched out for a specific time.
When discerning if one should undertake a particular form of fasting, understood in this wider sense, one must always make sure that this penance does not impede the performance of the duties of one’s state in life or cause harm to one’s health. One should also refrain from performing penances in public which would draw attention to oneself. Additionally, one should make sure that one’s penance does not become a penance for others.
Next, the Church and her spiritual writers place almsdeeds. An almsdeed is any material favor done to assist the needy, prompted by the infused virtue of charity, and which creates a loss for the one performing the action. Normally, when we hear of alms, we think of donating money or some good to a charitable organization or to an individual in need, but almsdeeds can also involve any work done for the sake of helping others, such as serving at a soup kitchen or similar types of volunteer work when one enters into such a work for the sake of performing penance. This type of volunteering is penitential because one is sacrificing one’s time and exerting one’s energy. Almsdeeds are penitential, then, because the one performing them suffers loss in his material goods, his energy, his time – all of which man treasures.
Lastly, there is prayer. Any prayer can be penitential when it is offered up in a spirit of contrition, but there are certain prayers which are more fitting, more expressive, which acknowledge our condition as fallen, prideful creatures and which pour forth sighs for sin committed. By this type of prayer, one acknowledges his submission to God. Prayers such as Acts of Contrition, the Confiteor, the Litany of Humility, and the Seven Penitential Psalms, make explicit what is contained in all penitential prayers and thus are highly recommended to be used in this regard.
Let the reader then, take time during this season of Septuagesima to determine or reexamine how he will spend this upcoming Lent, considering these different forms of penance—fasting, almsdeeds, and prayer – and strive to keep the season, if not in the same practices, at least in the same spirit and effort as our Catholic forefathers.
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