Each year as Lent begins, I look for an old keepsake: My Lenten Missal, published by the Confraternity of the Precious Blood when I was in grade school in the 1950s. It contained the prayers of the Mass and the readings for every day of Lent. Modern illustrations—many showing the biblical characters in modern dress—captured my imagination. I followed the Mass (still in Latin) daily, which we attended as part of our Catholic school routine.
This missal stressed the traditional keeping of Lent. In those days Catholics had to keep a rigorous fast from food. Grade-schoolers like me gave up candy or other treats. We attended the Way of the Cross each Friday in school and on Sunday afternoons. Attendance at the Stations was mandatory on Sundays, even after you had gone to Mass that morning.
Lent was a serious time of penance, with an emphasis on personal conversion and turning away from sin. The suffering and death of Jesus was the focus of the season.
When I was in the seventh and eighth grades, I was an altar boy and served at the special liturgies of Holy Week. An innovative assistant pastor even taught us to chant some of the prayers for those days in Latin. I looked forward to going back to church on Holy Thursday evening to pray before the elaborately deco- rated altar where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved.
Throughout these years, I’ve kept that missal, partly from nostalgia. It reminds me of what Lent meant to me in the “first” part of my spiritual life—which actually continued through my seminary days.
Since my ordination as a priest, the meaning of Lent has changed. Now—especially in my current assignment as a pastor—my Lent is focused on making of new Christians. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), and the Second Vatican Council’s “refocusing” of Lent around the preparation of candidates for baptism, has meant a different kind of personal “keeping” of Lent as well as a different focus in preaching and liturgy. For Catholics, it is a time to renew our baptismal commitment while praying with and for those entering the church at Easter.
Our lenten penitential practices remain an important part of Lent. Now, however, we choose them with an eye on renewing our identity in Christ, even as we continue to “turn away from sin and believe in the Good News,” as one of the prayers for the distribution of ashes says.
In choosing the saints to accompany your prayer and reflection this season, I have kept this renewed purpose of Lent in mind. I was guided in my choices by themes of conversion and identity with Christ, using the daily readings for Lent as my inspiration. Occasionally, I picked saints who are more prominent or especially connected to our time. I’ve tried to keep some diversity in my choices as well.
Please join us in our Lent with the Saints series beginning February 26.