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Making a Good Lent: A Time to Choose

By Deacon Keith Fournier
February 20th, 2014
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

I look forward to Lent. It is a time of spiritual housecleaning, taking inventory, emptying myself and, progressing in the life of faith by discovering who I can become in Jesus Christ, for the sake of others.  It is an invitation to enter into the desert with the Lord and there, to do battle with the world, the flesh and the devil. It is a time to acknowledge my disordered appetites and obtain the grace, the divine life, mediated through the sacraments, to make progress in overcoming their negative effects.Too often we associate repentance with some kind of wrong- headed self hatred. To the contrary, for those who have been schooled in its lessons, the way of voluntary penitence and conversion becomes the path to freedom and happiness.

CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - One of the things I enjoy most in my service as a Catholic Deacon is teaching the Catholic faith. I am a revert to the Catholic Church - I returned to the Church as a young man after a search for truth. I found in the ancient but ever new Catholic Church the fullness of Truth. I delight in helping others find the treasures which many Catholics overlook and other Christians are often searching for, knowingly or unknowingly.

This week I gave a talk on the history, purpose and invitation of the Forty Days of prayer, fasting and alms-giving which we call Lent in Western Christianity. That term is derived from an old English term meaning lengthening. It came to be associated with Eastern Christians call the Great Lent because it occurs in the Liturgical Calendar just as the days are growing longer - and we enter into spring.

The evolution of the term itself points to the naturally/supernatural way in which the Church, as mother and teacher, draws the faithful ever closer to the Lord through the use of signs and symbols which are incorporated into the cycle of the Church Year.

I shared my experience as a very young man when I was a part of the early miracle which became the Franciscan University of Steubenville. A dear priest friend, a Franciscan, used to get to the preliminary run up to Lent in the Church year and he would to tell me "I am looking forward to Lent." Frankly, I did not understand. I still associated Lent with imposition from the outside, with its regulation, fasting, ascetic practice and liturgical custom.

I had not yet, in my early twenties, received the season for what it truly can become, an invitation to conversion and a path to fuller freedom. 

As the years have progressed, I find myself in this season of my life repeating those very words my priest friend used as we approach Lent. I encounter the same kind of bewildered look in the faces of some who hear me; much like the one I used to make when my colleague would say them to me.

I look forward to Lent. It is a time of spiritual housecleaning, taking inventory, emptying myself and, progressing in the life of faith by discovering who I can become in Jesus Christ, for the sake of others.  It is an invitation to enter into the desert with the Lord and there, to do battle with the world, the flesh and the devil. It is a time to acknowledge my disordered appetites and obtain the grace, the divine life, mediated through the sacraments, to make progress in overcoming their negative effects.

It is a time to enter more deeply into the Word proclaimed in the Sacred Liturgy and the Liturgy of the Hours, in order to encounter the One whom the written words reveal, the Living Word.  It offers some of the most beautiful Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours. When received in contemplation, they truly liberate and transform. It is a pause in the increasingly frenetic pace of life which, when embraced, opens an opportunity to become a joyful penitent. Lent is a gift which, when unwrapped, can lead us to happiness.

We do not hear enough of a fundamental truth of the Christian faith; the Lord desires our human flourishing and happiness. He wants us to be free. The Apostle Paul proclaimed to the Galatians "It was for freedom that Christ set us free" (Gal 5:1) He invites us to choose Him over our own selfish pursuits to find that happiness and freedom which He alone can bring. Sin fractured our freedom and it is the wood of the Cross which becomes the splint which restores it.

We speak of receiving the beatific vision at the particular judgment, when we finally stand in His presence and enter into the fullness of communion.  The word translated beatitude, from the Greek, also means happiness! Living in the Lord will make us happy; not only in the life to come, but beginning now.

Too often we associate repentance with some kind of wrong- headed self hatred. To the contrary, for those who have been schooled in its lessons, the way of voluntary penitence and conversion becomes the path to freedom and happiness.

Catholic Moral teaching also offers a unique insight which has enormous potential to engage a culture enamored with the pursuit of self fulfillment but making choices which lead to emptiness and despair. It affirms that choosing places the person in a relationship with the object, or the subject, chosen. That which is chosen not only affects the world around the chooser, but changes the person who is making the choice.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa provided an insight concerning our choices in an ancient homily quoted approvingly by Blessed John Paul II in his masterful encyclical letter on the Moral Life, Veritatis Splendor which means in English, The Splendor of Truth:

All things are subject to change and becoming never remain constant, but continually pass from one state to another, for better or for worse..Now human life is always subject to change; it needs to be born ever anew. But here birth does not come about by a foreign intervention, as is the case with bodily beings; it is the result of free choice. Thus we are, in a certain sense, our own parents, creating ourselves as we will, by our decisions.

What we choose determines who we will become. Choosing what is good changes the chooser, empowering him or her to proceed along the pathways of virtue and develop the habitus of Christian character. The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses human choice, action and freedom:

"The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to "the slavery of sin. (Cf. Rom 6:17)" (CCC#1733)

Blessed John Paul's Letter on the Moral Life, the Splendor of Truth (Veritatis Splendour), responded to the continuing call of the Second Vatican Council to re-root Catholic moral teaching within the Bible, which is the "soul of theology". (Dei Verbum #24)

In its first chapter, it provides an exegesis based on the Lord's encounter with the Rich young man within which it expounds a moral theology of choice. It was not the man's possessions which made him choose to say no to the Lord's invitation. It was his disordered relationship to them which impeded his freedom. They possessed him. He went away sad because he made the wrong choice. From this encounter the letter develops its teaching on choice and authentic human freedom, explaining the proper development and formation of conscience in relationship to objective truth. It issues a strong reaffirmation of the Natural Moral Law.

Two years after The Splendor of Truth, John Paul released another Encyclical letter entitled Evangelium Vitae,The Gospel of Life, which continued his work of laying a firm foundation for a proper understanding of choice. In that letter he responded to the myriad of threats against the dignity of human life caused by the redefinition of the word freedom with a prophetic urgency.  He warned of what he called a "counterfeit notion of freedom". He positioned this counterfeit as the root cause of what he labeled the culture of death.

Under that phrase he coalesced all the current social evils; from abortion (which is always and everywhere intrinsically evil); to modern slaveries, (including pornography and drug addiction); to disdain for the poor and a cheapening of all life as well as the foreboding momentum toward a misguided use of new medical technologies; to active and passive euthanasia and the return of eugenics. 

Finally, in considering the very notion of human choice we should note the clear moral character of the teaching compiled within the magnificent Catechism of the Catholic Church released on the thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, October 11, 1992.

Part Three of the Catechism, a section devoted specifically to a discussion of Moral theology is entitled "Life in Christ". The Section treats the vocation of man to beatitude. It articulates a clear Moral theology of choice by considering the morality of human acts, the role of the passions, proper formation of the conscience, the cultivation of the virtues and the rejection of sin.

In its explanation of the morality of human acts, The Catechism offers a sobering insight concerning a wrong exercise of freedom: "Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself." It properly insists that authentic Human Freedom cannot be realized in decisions made against God and against what is good because it is "patterned on God's freedom."

Patterned on God's freedom, man's freedom is not negated by his obedience to the divine law; indeed, only through this obedience does it abide in the truth and conform to human dignity. This is clearly stated by the Council: "Human dignity requires man to act through conscious and free choice, as motivated and prompted personally from within, and not through blind internal impulse or merely external pressure. Man achieves such dignity when he frees himself from all subservience to his feelings, and in a free choice of the good, pursues his own end by effectively and assiduously marshalling the appropriate means. (VS #42)

The New Testament is filled with examples of the connection between what we choose and who we become. Two will suffice. We become adulterers when we look at a woman with lust (Mt. 5:28); what comes out of our heart is what makes us "unclean" (Mk 7:14-23). In the biblical understanding, the heart is the center where freedom is exercised, human choices are made and character is formed through choice.

Freedom has consequences. The capacity to make choices is constitutive of our being human persons and reflects an aspect of the Imago Dei, the Image of God, present within us. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote in their document on the Mission of the Church: "Authentic freedom is an outstanding manifestation of the divine image within man." (GS #17)

However, what we choose is what truly matters. Freedom has a moral constitution. It must be exercised in reference to the truth concerning the human person, the family, and our obligations in solidarity to one another and to the common good. That is why the fullness of authentic human freedom is ultimately found only in a relationship with the God who is its source and who alone can set us free.

St. John 8:32 records these words of Jesus concerning this connection between freedom and truth, "Jesus then said to those Jews who believed in him, "If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

In The Splendor of Truth (Veritatis Splendour), Blessed John Paul warned of the "death of true freedom" (#40). The subject of what we choose is also addressed repeatedly in The Gospel of Life where he writes of freedom's "essential link with truth" and "inherently relational dimension." (#19)

In his later encyclical letter on Faith and Reason, Fides Et Ratio (Faith and Reason) , he wrote: It is not just that freedom is part of the act of faith: it is absolutely required. Indeed, it is faith that allows individuals to give consummate expression to their own freedom. Put differently, freedom is not realized in decisions made against God. For how could it be an exercise of true freedom to refuse to be open to the very reality which enables our self-realization? Men and women can accomplish no more important act in their lives than the act of faith; it is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth and chooses to live in that truth." (#13)

Over the Forty Days of Lent we are invited to pause and reflect upon what are we choosing - and who are we becoming in the process. Let us choose to make a Good Lent.Let us enter into all that the gift of lent offers to those who open its promise with their choices.

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