Lent is already half gone and what have we to show for it? In days of yore, by this time the Lenten obligation of fasting and abstaining together with the annual struggle to carry out our Lenten resolutions was getting tiresome. The desire for Easter freedom was almost tangible as we failed to keep our resolutions and tried to suppress our desire for snacks between meals.
Nowadays our obligations are minimal and resolutions are few. Catholics used to observe abstinence from meat every Friday of the year. Now it is required only on Fridays in Lent and Good Friday. Obligatory fasting is required only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. We are still expected to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days but everyone recognizes how lax many are in that regard. We were even supposed to support the church, a precept we learned in addition to the Ten Commandments. What ever happened to all those obligations of the past? Are we better off without them?
At the beginning of Lent we were reminded of the traditional disciplines that should mark our observance of this holy season, namely, prayer, fasting and almsgiving or works of charity. For the most part these are now counsels, not obligations. I sense that most of us ignore the counsels and disdain any conversation about obligations. But I suggest that these disciplines are still obligatory for us if we are serious about Christian living. In the past we used to talk about such obligations being obligatory under pain of sin. I say that they are now obligatory at the risk of the loss of faith. What do I mean?
In my role as pastor of this archdiocese, I sometimes see myself as the coach of a lovable team that is out of shape spiritually. I include myself as a member of that team. We all know that in order to stay physically healthy we need to have some sensible habits of diet and exercise. In order to stay spiritually healthy, we also need some good habits of virtuous living. Such habits are facilitated by the traditional penances suggested every Lent, namely, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and works of charity. Without them, our faith life becomes far too casual and inevitably we lose when we struggle with temptation and sin.
In the past, when it came to prayer, the only obligation we had focused on was Mass attendance on Sundays and holy days. We still have that obligation but obviously it is not something everyone takes seriously. We excuse ourselves easily. Furthermore, the thought that we might participate in the celebration of the Eucharist more often than on Sundays is apparently moot.
Oh, yes, many people were in attendance at the cathedral on Ash Wednesday, even though it was not an obligation. But by Friday of that same week there was the usual small gathering for weekday Eucharist. When I was a youngster, our parish had a daily Mass one-half hour before school began. Even though no one said we had to go, many of us attended that Mass together with our moms and/or dads during Lent or other special days. I dont see that happening at my parish. I suspect its much the same elsewhere. No one gives a thought to praying at Eucharist more often during Lent than any other time. I also wonder about family prayer and grace before meals.
If its not obligatory under pain of sin, then people seem to think its not obligatory at all. And I worry about the diminishment of faith when such practices are minimal.
Fasting is another matter. With only two days as obligatory, I doubt that even those days are observed well. Its true that the law of fasting obliges only those between 21 and 59. Catholic practice requires not eating between meals with only one full meal each day of fasting. When abstinence is in order, then no meat is to be eaten at all. I still remember all those Lenten suppers in the seminary when the folks in the kitchen were trying to vary our meatless meals. Maybe it looked somewhat foolish at the time. But I know it helped us understand that Christian living meant denying ourselves some of the things we want so that we might more readily be able to tolerate and endure things we dont want at all, like sickness, alienation, suffering and hard times. True discipleship means embracing our share in the full paschal mystery, the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, not simply the glory of rising to new life.
As far as almsgiving or church support is concerned, we Catholics tend to do reasonably well when the almsgiving or support is beneficial to our own parish or those we know. Our sense of wider outreach has been greatly diminished. Yes, it used to be an obligation to support your church. But nowadays people use it as a negotiating tool. If we like you or you do what we want, then we will support the church. But if we dont like you or you dont do what we want, then we wont support the church. Maybe theres no pain of sin attached to that refusal, but I clearly sense a great loss of faith.
Yes, I do believe the obligations to pray, to fast, and to share our personal resources in the support of the church and other charities are essential for Catholic living, just as much today as they were in the past. The resulting loss of faith when such practices are ignored is indeed the sin of these post-modern times. We Catholics dont go to Mass simply for pleasure, although for many of us it is indeed a great pleasure. We do it because we love our Lord and one another and we want to be strengthened in these relationships. We dont fast because its a dietary issue. We do so because we want to lead virtuous lives and we need good habits in order to grow in virtue. As we learned during the years of Disciples in Mission here in this archdiocese, we are all responsible for the churchs evangelizing mission. One of the time-honored ways of expressing that commitment is through our support of the church itself and our participation in all kinds of works of charity.
What ever happened to obligations? They remain but they are misunderstood. I tell young people they have an obligation to go to Mass on Sunday just the same as they have an obligation to eat. Without the nourishment of Gods word and the Eucharist, faith will be diminished. We all have an obligation to deprive ourselves of some of the things we want. Otherwise self-serving becomes the hallmark of our behavior and virtue becomes an afterthought. Charitable contributions are an essential expression of our commitment to building the kingdom of God here on earth and leveling the playing field for all our sisters and brothers who struggle because of ignorance, poverty or human suffering.
Even though Lent is half spent, its never too late. Doing only what we want, when we want and how we want makes us all look immature. Turning away from sin and being faithful to the gospel inevitably confront us with the practices that are essential if we are to succeed. You are in my prayers as together we walk the road to Easter glory by way of Calvary.