Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (Feb 17 this year) and ends on Easter Sunday. It is the season for soul-searching, reflection and repentance. Joyce Gan speaks with Father Ignatius Huan, Spiritual Director and Initiation Year Director at the St. Francis Xavier Major Seminary, to find out more about the relationship between penance and baptism
THE SEASON OF Lent originated in the earliest days of the Church as a preparatory time for Easter, when the faithful rededicate themselves to their baptismal promises, and when converts who are instructed in the faith are prepared for baptism.
Lent is marked by three pillars of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Catholics are encouraged to adopt penances during Lent to help us develop these pillars.
However, instead of strictly focusing to fulfil our penances, it is important not to forget that at the heart of Lent lies the “baptismal character of Lent”, said Father Ignatius Huan. “Therefore, penance is [really] meant to help us in spiritual renewal.”
He added, “Vatican II wants to remind us of this baptismal character. Spiritual renewal is a renewal of our baptismal promises. [Similarly], those preparing for baptism need to ‘die’ to themselves to rise again with God.”
This desire to renew the liturgical practices of the Church can be seen in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (n. 109) of Vatican Council II: the two elements especially characteristic of Lent – the recalling or preparation of baptism, and penance – should be better emphasised in liturgy and liturgical catechesis. This is how the Church prepares the faithful to celebrate Easter.
Canon Law (n. 1249) also tells us that “The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way” and that penitential days are set by the Church so that the faithful can be “united among themselves by some common observance of penance”.
Whatever penance adopted should adhere to the three pillars of Lenten observance that require a ‘self-emptying’ to a deeper focus on God.
Prayer empties us to focus on deepening our relationship with God. The self-discipline of fasting empties us of our sins. Almsgiving empties us to better give of ourselves to others, said Father Huan, who emphasised the “need to understand the spirit of penance” rather than merely following the letter of the law in making them.
“Penances are meant to help us empty ourselves to be filled with the spirit of God, and this must be manifested in good fruits,” he explained.
Penance is not the end
The goal of making a penance during Lent is about conversion – not just to abstain from sin during the duration of Lent but to root that sin out of our lives.
“If we’ve made our penance living up to the spirit of Lent, we have made a renewal of commitment to God and to the people of God... The practice of the penance may stop after Lent, but the spirit will carry on,” said Father Huan.
Penance is not a “must”, said Father Huan, because “if you do something because you think you have to, it already defeats the spirit of Lent” which is to empty self for God and others. Father Huan also gave some examples of penances.
Smokers can give up smoking as a means to die to self to live for God. Money spent on cigarettes can be given to the poor. Hence, giving up smoking as penance can be integrated with almsgiving.
One can also choose to “take on something” as penance, such as going to Mass daily, or keeping up with morning prayers.
We can remember to renew our baptismal commitment at Mass during Lent, so that after the season, every time we go to Mass, we remember to renew our commitment, he added. Father Huan himself practises this by “renewing my priestly commitment to God” before each Mass.
Father Huan strongly advised against taking on a “big challenge” as penance for “that may lead to spiritual pride”. Instead, “it is better to do small things but to do it to perfection”, he said.
As an example of a Lenten penance he has made, Father Huan shared, “I like to read the newspapers in the morning, to get in touch with the world and so on. But during Lent, I will only read it at the end of the day – that’s my sacrifice. And then I integrate that into my nightly prayers [as an expression of my] concern for the world, and I intercede and pray for those in need as a form of charity.”
“It may sound very insignificant but it helps me,” he smiled. “Lent is [after all] to remind us of our dependence on God and to be in solidarity with the suffering of the world.”