Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Finding the True Lenten Focus on Penance

By Jennifer Gregory Miller ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 28, 2020 | In The Liturgical Year

We are only at the beginning stages of Lent, a time to settle and see where the Holy Spirit directs us in our Lenten journey. I’ve been hearing so many complaints about how the Church needs to bring back true fasting, that all the modern regulations are so soft. So many believe it would be much better if the Church returned to the stricter obligations for fasting almost every day in Lent, or at least made fasting requirements stricter. While it can be easier when everyone is under the same obligation, I can see the wisdom for the current regulations, even if they seem light and not very penitential.

The Call for Change

The document from Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 1963) called for some adjustments in the Liturgical Year and the Liturgy particularly regarding Lent and Easter (emphasis mine):

109. The two elements which are especially characteristic of Lent—the recalling of baptism or the preparation for it, and penance—should be given greater emphasis in the liturgy and in liturgical catechesis. It is by means of them that the Church prepares the faithful for the celebration of Easter, while they hear God’s word more frequently and devote more time to prayer.

(a) More use is to be made of the baptismal features which are proper to the Lenten liturgy. Some of them which were part of an earlier tradition are to be restored where opportune.

(b) The same may be said of the penitential elements. But catechesis, as well as pointing out the social consequences of sin, must impress on the minds of the faithful the distinctive character of penance as a detestation of sin because it is an offense against God. The role of the Church in penitential practices is not to be passed over, and the need to pray for sinners should be emphasized.

110. During Lent, penance should be not only internal and individual but also external and social. The practice of penance should be encouraged in ways suited to the present day, to different regions, and to individual circumstances. It should be recommended by the authorities mentioned in Article 22.

But the paschal fast must be kept sacred. It should be celebrated everywhere on Good Friday, and where possible should be prolonged throughout Holy Saturday so that the faithful may attain the joys of the Sunday of the resurrection with uplifted and responsive minds.

Many see the changes as reflective of a “soft” society as a whole, that we are unable or unwilling to take on penances. My first response to this criticism of the current Lenten liturgy and obligations is to realize that there is no restriction in taking up more fasting and penance than is minimally required. Why do we need an outside requirement to make us do something? To me our modern liturgy reflects treating Catholics like adults, respecting their individual wills. Instead of multiple restrictions and regulations, there is an invitation to interior conversion. There is less coercion and more room for free will and growth. It reminds me so much of the approach in a Montessori classroom. A capable child is given the freedom to choose, instead of always being told what to do. To choose more penance becomes a personal and interior choice.

Itinerary of Conversion

While I had these thoughts, I started rereading my favorite Lenten daily companion book, Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches written by George Weigel in 2013. His introduction just completely answered this question of what is the difference and why. We do have penance, but it takes a shift in focus. My quote is somewhat lengthy (I would quote the whole chapter if I could), but I couldn’t nail this as well as Weigel. He leaves much to ponder on for Lent (emphasis mine):

The rediscovery of the baptismal character of Lent, the ancient penitential season that precedes Easter, and the restoration of the Paschal Triduum—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil—as the apex of the Church’s liturgical year are two of the most important accomplishments of modern Catholicism.

Over the centuries, the summit of the Church’s year of grace—the celebration of Christ’s passing over from death to life, from which the Church prepares in Lent—had become encrusted with liturgical barnacles that gradually took center stage in the drama of Holy Week. And while some of them had a beauty of their own, such as the Tenebrae service, celebrated early in the morning of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, the overall effect was to diminish the liturgical richness of the Triduum; the Easter Vigil’s essential character as a dramatic night-watch, when the Church gathers at the Lord’s tomb to ponder the great events of salvation history while awaiting the bright dawn of the Resurrection, was almost completely obscured. Similarly Lent, which had an intensely baptismal character centuries ago, became almost exclusively penitential; a matter of what Catholic must not do, rather than a season focused on the heart of the Christian vocation and mission—conversion to Jesus Christ and the deepening of our friendship with him.

Now, thanks to Pope Pius XII’s restoration of the Easter Vigil and the liturgical reforms mandated by the Second Vatican Council, Catholics of the twenty-first century can celebrate both Lent and the Paschal Triduum in the richness of their evangelical and baptismal character, as moments of intensified conversion to Christ and incorporation into his Body, the Church. Lent, once dreaded, has become popular: churches are full on Ash Wednesday, and the disciplines of Lent—fasting, almsgiving, intensified prayer—have now been relocated properly within the great human adventure of continuing conversion. Celebrated with appropriate solemnity, the Paschal Triduum today is what it should be: the apex of the liturgical year, in which those who were initially conformed to Christ in Baptism, along with those baptized at the Easter Vigil, relive the Master’s Passion and Death in order to experience the joy of the Resurrection, the decisive confirmation that God’s purposes in history will be vindicated.

The revival of Lent in the Catholic Church has involved the rediscovery of the Forty Days as a season shaped by the catechumenate: the period of education and formation through which adults who have not yet been baptized are prepared to receive Baptism, Confirmation, and the Holy Eucharist, the three sacraments of Christian initiation, at the Easter Vigil. The baptismal character of Lent is not for catechumens only, however. The adult catechumenate (called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) offers an annual reminder to the Church that all Christians are always in need of conversion. The Church’s conversion, the Church’s being-made-holy, is a never-ending process.

Baptism, the Scriptures tell us, is “for the forgiveness of sins” And while the central aspect of the sacrament is most dramatically manifest in the baptism of adults at the Easter Vigil, those who were baptized in infancy, and who, as all do, inevitably fall into sin, are also in need of forgiveness. Thus baptism “for the forgiveness of sins,” which is such a prominent theme throughout Lent, reminds all the baptized that they, too, require liberation from sin: from the bad habits that enslave us and impede our friendship with Christ.

To make the pilgrimage of Lent is to follow an itinerary of conversion. Lent affords every baptized Christian the opportunity to reenter the catechumenate, to undergo a “second baptism,” and thus to meet once again the mysteries of God’s mercy and love.

It is this sentence, “Similarly Lent, which had an intensely baptismal character centuries ago, became almost exclusively penitential; a matter of what Catholics must not do, rather than a season focused on the heart of the Christian vocation and mission—conversion to Jesus Christ and the deepening of our friendship with him” that zooms in on the difference of the current penance regulations. Penance is seen and taken up “as a detestation of sin because it is an offense against God” (SC). When there is procession of true conversion, there is an interior push for fasting, instead of exterior regulations. With our returning the liturgical focus on baptism, this sense of turning back to God and conversion provides the different and refreshing focus on penance.

Note: I have reviewed George’s Weigel’s Roman Pilgrimage: The Lenten Stations book in the past, and had written several posts on the Roman Station Churches. But I highly recommend reading Roman Pilgrimage as a daily liturgical companion during Lent and the Easter Octave. Weigel really weaves in the traditional Roman Station liturgy with our current lectionary and Liturgy of the Hours. It is a fantastic book, and I have returned to it annually.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is a wife, mother, homemaker, CGS catechist, and Montessori teacher. Specializing in living the liturgical year, or liturgical living, she is the primary developer of’s liturgical year section. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jan02 - Feb. 28, 2020 8:09 PM ET USA

    Having observed Holy Week and the Triduum in a traditional (FSSP) Latin Mass parish, I can heartily attest to the beauty and spiritual depth of the pre-Vatican II Liturgical services, especially the veneration of Christ after the Holy Thursday liturgy where Christ was solemnly and most lovingly welcomed at a special location overflowing with flowers brought by the faithful. The vigil went on until Midnight for all those able to stay there in silence with our Lord.