I love Lent. Please don’t misunderstand me. It’s not that I embrace penance or self-denial more eagerly than others do. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak! The disciplines of Lent, of course, do involve self-denial. But these acts of penance and almsgiving, as well as our greater commitment to prayer, are liberating. They are directed toward renewal. Lent is the liturgical season which highlights the call to repentance and ongoing conversion more urgently than any other. Now is the time to prepare ourselves with the whole Church for the celebration and experience of new life at Easter. Jesus Christ died for you and for me. We will only share the joy of his victory if we acknowledge our need for a savior. Lent puts us in touch with that deep human and spiritual need.
If we are truly seeking a deeper conversion to Christ and desire to live as his disciples it seems strange that we usually take on penances and disciplines during Lent simply to discard them at Easter. Unfortunately, that is often the way we approach this penitential season. Discipleship is a lifelong journey and a year-round way of life. The most fruitful Lenten disciplines help us focus on those areas of our life in which the Lord is calling us to deeper conversion and repentance. In other words, it is not primarily about what legitimate pleasure we should “give up” during Lent, but about what sin in our life we need to repent of so that we can follow Christ more faithfully. What obstacles need to be removed? What relationships need to be repaired, improved or ended? What bad habits need to be broken? What virtues (good habits) need to be strengthened? Our acts of fasting, almsgiving and our prayer open our hearts to God’s grace so that we can follow Christ more closely.
The grace of Lent is an invitation to make permanent changes in our lives. How about changing our attitude toward the Sacrament of Penance? Beginning this Lent, I invite us to approach this great sacrament of mercy more frequently. Without the grace and healing that comes to us through the Sacrament of Penance, how can we experience the deeper conversion and spiritual growth that the Lord desires for us?
Saint John Vianney recognized the importance of this sacrament for the renewal of his parish. He spent untold hours hearing confessions because he saw this great gift, which was being neglected in his time just as it is in our own, as the key that would free his people from their bondage to sin and lead them to great holiness. By preaching its importance, praying for his parishioners’ conversion and making himself available in the confessional, he eventually witnessed the fruits of a great spiritual renewal in his parish. The renewal began with the Sacrament of Penance which helped people experience God’s great mercy and opened their hearts to the fruitful reception of the Eucharist and an eagerness for the works of charity.
“It is beautiful to think that we have a sacrament which heals the wounds of our souls,” exclaimed Saint John Vianney. Why would we not go frequently to receive the benefits of this great sacrament? Each of us longs for the profound experience of freedom and peace which comes from a clear conscience and the experience of being forgiven and set free from our bondage to sin. Saint John Vianney describes the effects of this sacrament in just those terms: “The Good God at the moment of absolution throws our sins behind his shoulders; in other words, He forgets them; He destroys them; they will never reappear again.”
This Lent, take the longer view. Recognize the need for lasting changes and ongoing conversion. A commitment to the frequent celebration of the Sacrament of Penance will transform that hoped-for outcome from a mere dream into a reality.
Most Catholics still recognize the importance of a good confession during Lent. It is how we prepare ourselves for the celebration of Easter. We humbly confess our sinfulness seeking divine mercy and we experience the liberating grace of reconciliation with God and his Church. Unfortunately, far too many Catholics approach the Sacrament of Penance only during Lent. If it is really so beneficial, why would we approach it so infrequently?