What does the Catholic Church specifically require of us for the season of Lent?
It is important to note that my answer applies chiefly to the Roman Catholic Church. The Eastern churches in union with Rome (as well as the Orthodox) follow an ancient tradition with its own approach to this season. For example, they do not celebrate Ash Wednesday and they do not begin the Great Lent until the First Sunday of Lent.
In general, the season of Lent has traditionally observed the Gospel directive of prayer, fasting and alms giving. Based on that foundation, Lent has two aspects, the communal and the personal.
Its communal elements are those we observe as a faith community. Some see these as the “required” parts of Lent. In that light, those aged 14 and older are to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and on all the Fridays of Lent. In addition, those in good health, ages 18-59, are to fast by limiting themselves to one full meal and two lighter meals on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Of course, those with a medical condition that makes fasting inadvisable are not obliged to fast but should perform some other act of penance or charity.
In doing this together we unite in witnessing to the world that we are committed to walking with Christ to Calvary. When we see others performing the same sacrifices it also assists us in our journey. Our performance of Lenten observances, while not done to receive the praise of others, nonetheless has an evangelical character. It is our hope that, when others see our actions, a constructive dialogue may begin regarding elements of our faith.
Beyond these communal requirements, the Church directs each of us to expand our obedience to the Gospel directives of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. As we do this, we may well join with others in specific prayer experiences or acts of charity, but essentially this involves personal responsibility.
More than anything, our Lenten observance must be personal. We should not be limited to the communal or what is required. Lent, for each of us, must go beyond what is expected to what is most needed. To determine that, we must ask ourselves, “What should I do to become a better disciple of Jesus Christ?”
Prayer is always a good place to begin as we attempt to answer that question. Prayer is intended to be both communal and personal. We gather with the Church for Lenten liturgies as we worship together, but this should not be the end of prayer. Our personal commitment may mean approaching the sacrament of penance after a long absence. It may mean an attempt at daily Mass or sincere daily prayer.
Almsgiving is essentially the outgrowth of the compassion we feel for others. “Alms” may be material in nature, such as support for the needy and marginalized. It can also be the care we offer to those who suffer or feel isolated or alone. Almsgiving might involve resolution of some longstanding tension or animosity. It may mean seeking or providing forgiveness.
Only we know what is really needed in our spiritual lives. Beyond the communal is the personal. Our Lenten journey must include both.
Photo credit: Dena Koenig Photography