Among the unique privileges of a bishop is that of conferring the Sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Orders. There is another very special joy for the bishop, however. It is the opportunity of presiding at the annual Rite of Election, which will be celebrated next week on the first Sunday of Lent.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Church’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (of which the Rite of Election is a part), some explanation is in order. The Rite of Election formalizes the bishop’s acceptance of all those catechumens and candidates for full communion with the Catholic Church who have been preparing through prayer and study to enter the Church. Their names are called out during the rite, while the bishop and the assembled community pray that the days of Lent will be especially fruitful as the catechumens and candidates begin their final period of preparation for admission into the Catholic Church at Easter.
The rite is a simple one, but one that consistently has powerful effects on those who participate. Several years ago I heard the story of one young catechumen who had attended two Masses on Ash Wednesday. When the deacon, who noticed that the young man had come to Church twice that day, asked him why, he answered: “I am so excited about becoming a Catholic that I just had to come back for a second Mass.”
Lent is the perfect time for each and every one of us “old” Catholics to be renewed in our zeal for the faith which we received at our baptism. As we know very well, a spiritual sluggishness sets in as time goes by. The joy of our youth can dissipate as we become all too familiar with the mysteries of our faith. Before we know it we can find ourselves simply going through the motions, often finding the practice of the faith more of an obligation and a burden than a joy and a privilege.
There are many graces that are given to each of us during these days of Lent. Of course, there is nothing “magic” about grace. We must accept and cooperate with God’s graces if we are to grow in our love for Him and for our faith. Here are some suggestions for making the best use of this Lent.
Take the practice of penance seriously. Ours is a self-indulgent culture that would convince us that happiness and fulfillment are to be found in the satisfaction of every one of our desires. Only when we can say no to this deceit will we be able to open ourselves to the only One who can satisfy every human longing — God Himself. More than simply setting aside candy or some other trivial delight, real Lenten penance must result in the purging of sin from our lives. Freed from the burden of guilt we can devote ourselves to selfless and courageous acts of love of God and one another — most especially acts of love for and solidarity with the poor and suffering in our midst. All of our penitential practices are meant to lead us to the Sacrament of Penance (Reconciliation). No one who is serious about turning away from sin can avoid the sacrament of God’s forgiveness of sin.
Take prayer seriously. Prayer is often defined as “words we speak to God.” This is true enough — but it isn’t complete. Prayer must also include listening to God. There is no better way of allowing God to speak to us than by taking up His Holy Scriptures and attending to his voice. Here is a simple suggestion for Lent, but one that I believe will bear much fruit. Read slowly and prayerfully through one of the four Gospels — just a chapter a day. Pause while reading the Gospel to devote some time to careful listening. Ask yourself: How does this passage have meaning for me and my life situation? What is God saying to me right now? How can I respond to the Lord’s invitation to follow Him? This practice of praying with the Sacred Scriptures has been the occasion of an exciting renewal of faith for many Catholics.
Take almsgiving (stewardship of treasure) seriously. Have you ever considered making biblical tithing a part of your life? Have you considered it, but then quickly dismissed it as unrealistic? What about spending some time this Lent to discuss with your family members what it means to be a real steward of the earthly blessings that God has given you? Pray as a family and ask God for the faith to practice biblical tithing, i.e., giving back to God one-tenth of all the treasure that He has given you. If you think that that is just reckless use of your money, take the time to talk with someone who practices tithing. Let them tell you how it has changed their life — and only for the better.
Our annual observance of Lent has the same purpose every year — to bring us to the Easter celebration (and beyond) rejuvenated and renewed in faith. Lent should help us feel like one of those “new” Catholics, no matter how long we’ve been at it. Let’s all of us take Lent seriously.