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By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Lent Promotes Discipleship


Do Customs Vary by States?
Three Lenten Questions
Are Catholics Facing Racism?
Can a Religious Person Be a Hypocrite?
Are Sundays Part of Lent?

Do Customs Vary by States?

Q: My husband and I moved to a new state before Lent last year. When I went to Mass on Ash Wednesday, I received a pamphlet giving the following Lenten regulations:

"All the faithful are required to do penance. Abstinence is to be observed every Friday of Lent. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday. Those who have completed their 14th year are bound to the law of abstinence. Those who have completed their 18th year up to the beginning of their 60th year are bound to the law of fast."

Nothing, however, was said about "giving up something" for Lent, which was what I expected because of my childhood Lenten experiences. Do different parts of the country practice Lent differently?

A: Some Lenten practices are mandatory (the ones mentioned in that pamphlet) and some are optional. "Giving up something" is optional. So is "adding on" something, such as reading from the Bible, using a book of daily devotions, making a special effort to attend a weekday Mass, participating in parish or diocesan Lenten programs or engaging in new works of compassion.

Lent is about growing as disciples of Jesus. Every parish is united in prayer with its catechumens and candidates for full communion with the Catholic Church, preparing for their Baptism or reception at the Easter Vigil.

It makes no sense for parishioners to pray that these people will be generous followers of Jesus if current Catholics feel that they have "arrived" and need no further growth as disciples.

During Lent some Christians address their difficulty in separating "wants" from "needs." "I can live without ...," people sometimes say. Lent puts that to the test. Maybe they need to "give up" something at least temporarily. Other Christians may need to address blind spots in how they follow Jesus. Perhaps they need to "add on" something. On November 12, 2000, the U.S. bishops' Committee on Pastoral Practices approved a document entitled "Penitential Practices for Today's Catholics." You can access it at

Lent is not a competition to see who can "give up" or "add on" the most. It's a moment of honesty about the obstacles we could be placing in our path to follow Jesus. Regardless of where we live, Lent prepares us to be increasingly more honest and generous followers of Jesus Christ.


Three Lenten Questions

Q: My sister, who is no longer a practicing Catholic, asked me where Lent comes from and whether it is biblical. Her Church emphasizes the biblical basis of everything they do.

I've noticed that some parishes remove the holy water from the fonts during Lent. Why?

One last question: On Fridays in Lent, why can we eat fish but not other meats such as chicken, steak, pork, etc.?

A: Lent is based on Christ's 40-day fast in the desert, which recalls the 40 years that the Hebrew people wandered between leaving Egypt and entering the Promised Land. During Lent the Church prepares to welcome new members through Baptism at the Easter Vigil. In Matthew 6:1-8, Jesus assumes that his disciples will pray, fast and give alms; he warns them not to "show off" in the process.

Many parishes take the holy water out of the fonts during Lent. You might think of it as "fasting before the feast." This custom helps some people better appreciate the symbolism of baptismal water at the Easter Vigil. During the Easter season, water is used during the sprinkling rite at the beginning of many Masses.

Speaking of fish as "meat" may be stretching that term. The Catholic Church's abstinence laws consider that meat comes only from animals such as chickens, cattle or pigs—all of which live on land. Birds are also considered meat. Fish are a different category of animal.

Are Catholics Facing Racism?

Q: I am a cradle Catholic, born and raised in Nigeria. I have been very disappointed by Catholic parishes in this country with regard to racial issues. I am beginning to wonder if God-fearing Catholics are the most racist people around.

I have experienced blatant racial incidents in Catholic churches, including whites moving two seats down from me in church. How do you suggest that I deal with these issues? I am strongly considering leaving the Catholic faith since I do not relish worshiping with hypocrites.

A: Yes, there is racism among Catholics because we are human beings prone to sin (including racism). Is this sin being acknowledged and dealt with? Yes.

If you go to our home page and in the Search for Articles box type "Opening the Doors," you will get a link to our February 2001 article on black Catholics in the United States. If you repeat the process and type "Many Faces in God's House," you will get a link to Our June 2000 Catholic Update in preparation for a meeting to celebrate the multiracial, multiethnic reality that is the Catholic Church. "Encuentro 2000: Many Faces in God's House" was the only gathering promoted nationally by the U.S. bishops for the Jubilee Year.

During that Encuentro 2000 meeting in Los Angeles, the sin of racism was named and condemned as a violation of Catholicism's most basic belief: Jesus came for the salvation of all people. We are all brothers and sisters in the human family. As the song says, "In Christ there is no east or west."

None of this will erase the racism you have already experienced. But it suggests that those individuals do not represent the entire Catholic Church in this country.

Sin is a sad reality in every human group, including the Catholic Church with its divine origin and vocation. We identify sin as sin and challenge it in light of the Good News, which that same Church preaches to us.

Before you decide that the Catholic Church in this country is irredeemably racist, please check the Internet links that I listed above.

Last November the U.S. bishops elected as president of their conference Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Illinois. He is the first African-American bishop to hold that position and is a convert to the Catholic faith. May Christ, the light of the nations, help all Catholics to avoid the sin of racism.

Can a Religious Person Be a Hypocrite?

Q: What is a religious hypocrite? I have always had a hard time understanding what a hypocrite is. Now some people are making it harder by adding the word "religious."

A: . A religious hypocrite is someone who creates God in his or her image—not the other way around as God intended. A religious hypocrite manipulates religion in order to look respectable or even heroic. This is the basis for Jesus' story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Temple (Luke 18:9-14).

A religious hypocrite likes worshiping a comfortable, nonthreatening image of God rather than worshiping the totally honest and loving God we meet in the Bible. A Christian racist is, by definition, a hypocrite because he or she is trimming the Good News to include some people and exclude others. Jesus and biblical prophets like Amos, Micah, Isaiah and Jeremiah gave very strong indictments of religious hypocrisy.

Are Sundays Part of Lent?

Q: Last year my Catholic co-workers and I disagreed over whether Sundays are considered part of Lent. Each year I give up sweets for Lent, but I have always understood that I could eat them on Sundays during Lent. Some of my co-workers disagree. With Lent starting soon, I would like to know who is right on this issue.

A: Technically, Sundays are not part of Lent. Although we celebrate them liturgically as part of Lent, the Lord's Day cannot be a day of fast and abstinence. Six weeks of Monday through Saturday gives you 36 days. If you add to them Ash Wednesday and the three days after it, you get the 40 days of Lent.

Some people may find it easier to "give up" something for the entire time between Ash Wednesday and Easter, but you are correct in saying that Sundays are not part of the 40 days.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

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