The Penitential Practices of Lent


The Lenten season is a time for getting our lives in order and turned in the right direction as together the Church makes the ascent up to Jerusalem and the Upper Room and Calvary and the empty tomb. It is a calling to conversion and preparation, including traditional penitential practices. For example, in addition to the ashes and sacramental confession, this “is a favorable season for deepening our spiritual life through the means of sanctification offered us by the Church: fasting, prayer and almsgiving,” says Pope Francis in his Message for Lent 2017.

These penitential practices to block out all the noise and busyness of the world, and get our priorities straight, really are not separate, but interrelated. Christians fast, including meatless Fridays and sacrificing enjoyment of other things, not for simple deprivation, but as a step toward purification and progress toward greater love of the Lord, who fasted as well in the desert and before he endured his Passion for our sake.

The fast acceptable to the Lord means “setting free the oppressed,” and “sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; clothing the naked when you see them” (Isaiah 58:6-7). Also, by feeling hungry for a while, we might better identify with those who experience hunger every day.

Our devotions and penitential practices should, of course, begin with prayer, with opening and raising up our hearts to God in communion with the whole people of God. Fasting, prayer and almsgiving are to be done in a spirit of humility and love of God and neighbor. Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee who prayed with an air of moral superiority and scorn for others as he took pride before God in how much he fasted and gave alms. Meanwhile, a nearby tax collector humbly confessed himself a sinner and prayed for God’s mercy. “I tell you,” said Jesus, “the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18:10-14).

Pope Francis points to a similar parable in his Lenten Message – the story of the poor Lazarus and the rich man “who dresses like a king and acts like a god,” as described by the Holy Father. “In fact, there was no place for God in his life.” Accordingly, the rich man was blind to the wretched hungry man lying at his door and, in the rich man’s interior emptiness, this led to him suffering in the netherworld when he died, while Lazarus, who suffered here, enjoyed the riches of heaven.

Lent reminds us to conduct ourselves “in a way worthy of the Gospel of Christ,” loving him and others (Philippians 1:27). We give up something, give in charity, empty ourselves and open our hearts to make room for something much, much better. By dying to self in the Lord, we will rise with him in eternal life (cf. Romans 8:1-13).