Lent is a time for preparation. Set aside by the Church as a liturgical season oriented toward the sacred Triduum of Christ’s Paschal Sacrifice, we prepare ourselves, we practice self-sacrifice, and we try to unite ourselves with the suffering of Jesus Christ.
During Lent we are encouraged to practice the classical Greek virtue of askesis (from whence we derive our term “ascetic”). Askesis can be described as extreme self-discipline, and it was commonly practiced by ancient Greek athletes in preparation for their rigorous competitions. It came to be used to describe the Desert Fathers, whose extreme lifestyles of deprivation and sacrifice set the example for future monastic and mendicant orders.
There are those who say the life of a parish priest is far more ascetical than that of certain religious. All jokes aside, we are all called to live a more ascetic life during Lent, and the priest has a unique opportunity and responsibility to help his flock truly live the season.
The three traditional pillars of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. As the steward of the parish community, it is the pastor’s responsibility to help foster opportunities for the members of the community to practice these disciplines.
Lent is a penitential season. Through the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we can unite ourselves to the sufferings of Jesus Christ in the desert; the Israelites during their exodus; Noah and all those upon the earth during the cleansing of the flood.
Certainly, some parishes may struggle with the logistics of this suggestion. They may have limited space, or a lack of volunteers to run the programs or a lack of availability of paid staff; there may be any number of other logistical problems. However, this is a relatively brief period of the year, and one during which it is especially important to build the Faith and be conscious of what we are celebrating.
For many members of the congregation, it is difficult to strengthen their faith, to carve out time for prayer, to give of themselves for the service of others. But Lent is a perfect time to foster these practices in the community.
One example of a possible opportunity is a Lenten Bible study. The average congregant might not wish to spend the money on biblical commentaries, and many of these books are difficult to understand without a background in biblical theology or archaeology.
However, if the parish hosts a special Bible study during the season of Lent, dozens of people might show up who might not otherwise think critically about sacred Scripture.
It is also commendable to encourage the community to pursue prayer, fasting and almsgiving on their own. Encourage personal reading of Scripture; the praying of the Divine Office, whether alone or in groups; the reciting of the Stations of the Cross, or praying the holy Rosary or going to Eucharistic adoration; volunteering at a food bank or soup kitchen; giving their time and money to worthy causes like Catholic Relief Services or Project Rachel.
While independent and personal pursuit of these virtues is a wonderful thing, the Christian life is also a communal life in the Body of Christ, and we are meant to live our faith in community, one of the reasons it is important that the parish provide such opportunities.
This does not only apply to parish priests. Any priest serving in a leadership capacity in a community has a responsibility to provide such opportunities to those in his care: a chaplain working at a university, on a military base or in a hospital; a religious superior providing for his community.
As with just about anything in the life of a parish priest, logistical or financial problems can arise that might make this seem like a much less important priority. But when it comes to the salvation of souls and the educating of your community’s hearts and minds, there is no greater priority.
PAUL SENZ holds a Master of Arts in pastoral ministry from the University of Portland and lives in Oregon with his family.