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Lent in a Secular Age

By David G. Bonagura, Jr.
March 1st, 2011
Catholic Online (

The life of the Church has always been affected, for good and for ill, by historical circumstances and by the surrounding culture. Is Lent 'a holy retreat of forty days during which we are to regain purity of soul' anymore?

WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - The life of the Church has always been affected, for good and for ill, by historical circumstances and by the surrounding culture. The Roman persecutions confirmed the faith of countless thousands; encroaching imperial power prompted the Church to distinguish between secular and spiritual powers; the formation of universities allowed further meditation on the Church´s deposit of faith; the slothful religious practices of clergy led to the Orders of Francis and Dominic; the loss of the Papal States helped turn the papacy from a regional to a global force.

Our current age is no exception: When the Second Vatican Council called for "aggiornamento"—"updating"—in the Church, the stale and suffocating air of secularism rushed in her open windows and stifled much of the good that the Council had sought. A mere ten years after the Council—a blink of an eye in the life of the Church—Catholic belief and practice had been totally transformed.

The practice of Lent is one important example. No longer was a full forty day fast (which was essentially the current fast prescribed for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday for the duration of Lent, though meat could be taken once daily except on Fridays) mandated under pain of mortal sin; it was hoped instead that the faithful would find more meaning in voluntary fasts and penances. This decision was akin to making homework optional for students—nearly all gave up on the old fast while forgetting the meaning of the word penance. Fortunately, one more broadly conceived Lenten sacrifice has been maintained: the good and pious practice of "giving something up"—food, drink, television programming—for Lent.

Yet the loss of fasting and penance is not Lent´s only casualty, for the pervading secular culture has transformed the very meaning of Lent itself. Today many Catholics do their level best to give up booze or chocolate, say a few extra prayers, and give a few extra dollars to charity, as well they should. But secularism has confined fasting, prayer, and almsgiving largely to private, individual practice, and these are limited to one or two per customer. Absolutely excluded from the "giving up" list are social festivities and special events of all kinds. As a result the normal, happy activities of the world—and even of the Church—proceed as usual this time of year, and they beckon our participation while in complete (though largely unwitting) ignorance of the austerity for which the Lenten season calls.

Thus trips to the movies, concerts, dinners out, and parties continue apace in Lent, even though these goods should be put on hold with candy and ice cream. Catholic weddings, once discouraged during Lent because of their great festivity, are now celebrated regularly in Lent, even on Fridays, which are officially the only penitential days left in the liturgical year. Recently, I stopped into a local Knights of Columbus hall on a Friday evening in Lent. Had a calendar not been handy, I would have thought it was Christmastide: the large, boisterous crowd was enjoying both the live music and the flowing bar. Stations of the Cross leaflets were nowhere to be found.

When Pope St. Leo the Great (r. 440-461) called Lent "a holy retreat of forty days during which we are to regain purity of soul," he had in mind more than retreating from the sweet plate in the office lunch room. Lent for St. Leo and countless Christians before us meant retreating from all things sensually pleasing—be they food or social gatherings—so that, in St. Leo´s words, "with cleansed minds and purified bodies we may celebrate the all-excelling mystery of our Lord´s sacred passion." Writing in the 1950s, the great German liturgist Pius Parsch took for granted that "everyone will forego such pleasures as movies and the theater during the holy season." And lest we think such a broadly conceived fast not apply to us busy moderns, Pope Benedict XVI cited an ancient Lenten hymn in his 2009 message for Lent dedicated to fasting: "Let us use sparingly words, food and drink, sleep and amusements. May we be more alert in the custody of our senses." Lent, in other words, is an all-consuming enterprise, and it requires sacrifices both personal and social in order to fulfill its purpose, so beautifully stated by St. Leo.

Of course, this is not to say that Lent is best lived in a cave of total isolation withdrawn from any simulation of fun. Certain events that occur during Lent (such as birthdays) are worthy of celebration, and certain social gatherings (dinner at the boss´ house, for example) may well be unavoidable. But for the most part a season of penance means precisely what it sounds: a sustained period of prayer, reparation, and conversion apart from extraordinary events. Because of rigors of Lent weary the body and the mind, the Church in her wisdom provides breaks in the fasting regiment: Sundays are not fast days (there are 46 days total from Ash Wednesday to Easter; Sundays are not figured in the forty days), nor are the Solemnities of St. Joseph (March 19) and of the Annunciation (March 25). These are feast days within the Lenten season, and they are to be celebrated joyfully in their own right, for they are celebrations of our redemption.

But Lent is preparation for redemption, and redemption was not free or easy. Redemption cost our Lord His life, and he paid it with every ounce of His being. In Lent we share in Christ´s passion, so our Lent, to the degree that we are able, should be lived to the full—both privately and socially. That may mean foregoing dinners out, or postponing a visit to the O´Reagans until Eastertide, or planning a family gathering on Sunday afternoon rather than on Saturday, or skipping the town´s spring festival all together. These are small sacrifices, but they are noble and holy; they also purify our minds from worldly preoccupations so that we can better contemplate the spiritual mysteries to which Lent leads. And they are also small steps that may help rescue Lent from its secular captivity.

The objections ring out: Did not Vatican II place a greater emphasis on baptism in Lent rather than penance? Are we not an Easter people made for rejoicing? Is not giving up all these things a bit excessive? We are indeed made for rejoicing; but in order to experience the joy of Easter we—in imitation of our Lord—must pass through Good Friday, and that includes undergoing serious sacrifices on the way to a real death: a death to sin, to the world, and to self.

Vatican II´s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy did call for a renewed emphasis on baptism, that is, on new life with the risen Christ, and rightfully so. But the Constitution describes baptism and penance together, since they both have the same aim: putting away the old man of sin, the necessary precondition of new life in the resurrection. The Constitution adds that during Lent "penance should be not only internal and individual but also external and social" (110).

Thus the Council confirms that cultural sacrifices are as essential as individual sacrifices—they remind us that the world belongs to the Lord, and that we are not alone in our Lenten journey. Secularism should not dictate the tone of Lent; rather our Lent should set the tone for our challenge to the world. When we give up the best of what this world has to offer, we remind it, and ourselves, that this world is not our ultimate fulfillment. And this leads us to what Lent is really all about: conversion.


David G. Bonagura, Jr. is associate editor of The University Bookman.

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