Fr. Bob McConaghy
Ash Wednesday signifies the start of the Lenten season. It’s the time when many Catholics make promises or offer sacrifices to God.
“Lord, I’ll stop visiting those sites on the Internet. I will stop the bad habits that come with it. I will control my temper. I will be more patient with the members of my family and my friends at school. I will strive to become more virtuous. And in order to do that, I will give up something. I will fast from movies during Lent. I won’t drink beer during Lent. I will stop smoking during Lent.”
These different things are what we call penances. Think back to those promises and penances of all your past Lents. The problem is by about the third or fourth week of Lent, those promises you made so enthusiastically on Ash Wednesday are forgotten. If this is how your Lenten season had been in the past, welcome to the group. It happens to most of us because we get Lent all wrong.
In the preface of the Mass during Ash Wednesday, the priest prays, “Each year, You give us this joyful season.” Oh, they must have it wrong. That’s Advent. Advent is joyful as it moves up to Christmas. But Lent is a time of penance. Penance means punishment.
No, it doesn’t. Penance means “preparation so I can love better.”
In this chapter, I want to share with you what I call a simple Lenten plan. I will give you seven different penances to do on different days of the week and is doable in its diversity. You won’t do the same thing throughout the season. You won’t give up something and then not be able to push through with it. These seven preparations will help you love better and, with the help of God’s grace, you will be able to carry them out.
Ash Wednesday is different from the other Wednesdays of Lent because you have to fast from food and abstain from meat. For many years, I would do the evening Ash Wednesday Mass at the Greenbelt Chapel in Makati, then I would head over to Glorietta. Once, I went to a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant and everybody there had big ashes on their forehead—they came from my Mass—and they were eating chicken! I said, “Whoa! Fish. Fish.” And they all laughed. The reason why we fast from food on Ash Wednesday is to open our hearts wider for what we will do in the next thirty-nine days of Lent.
Thursdays of Lent: Fast from Gossip
For the next five Thursdays of Lent, we will declare a fast against participating in that most delicious conversation called chismis or gossip. On this day, if our friends start talking about somebody else, we will either say something kind about that person so we do something loving, or we will excuse ourselves and not become a part of the conversation.
Francis said something interesting about gossip. He said gossip is worse than the sins below the belt. You know why? Because chismis is taking delight in somebody else’s sins so we don’t have to look at our own. So on Thursdays, you will need a lot of grace to be bold enough to say something good about that person who is being victimized.
Fridays of Lent: Fast from Negative Mental Judgments
On Fridays, you will declare another fast, this time against negative mental judgments about other people. Nobody can see those judgments we make in our heads. But do you notice that when you make negative mental judgments about others, it’s because you see their sins that bother you? The way somebody walks, the way they talk, the way they act, the way they dress, the way they talk to others, the way they talk to you—they irritate you. But while you keep quiet, in your mind you make a negative judgment about them. On Fridays, say to our Lord, “Help me remember today that although I will notice a lot of other people’s sins, and they will irritate me, I will not make judgments about them. Today, when I’m most strongly tempted to do that, help me to remember, Lord, that when You see my sins, You withhold judgment. In its place, You give me mercy.” On the Fridays of Lent, you ask our Lord to give you a merciful heart.
When you see the worst in someone, do what God does with you: bring out the best in that person.
Saturdays of Lent: Notice the ‘Little’ People
Jesus was very busy during the three years He walked around Galilee but there was something rather unique about Him. He noticed people that the others didn’t—the non-VIPs, the non-celebrities, the “little” people. He stopped and took time to say, “Hello, how are you?”
Saturdays are usually pretty free so make it a day to notice those people you easily overlook. This is a ministry that hardly anyone else does. It’s the ministry of simply noticing people that others don’t notice except to fulfill a need. For example, you might see along the street someone selling cigarettes and candy. You might greet him, buy a piece of candy, and give him a couple of pesos for the candy. But you don’t usually carry on a conversation with the vendor. Why don’t you take it further by asking, “Where are you from? Do you have a family? How many kids do you have?” Then offer to pray for him that he will do well today. Ask him to pray for you also. Tell him a prayer concern at work or in school. Believe me, when you have poor, hardworking people praying for you, those are very powerful prayers. So on Saturdays, be like Jesus and notice those whom nobody else notices
Sundays of Lent: Read the Good News
On Sundays, we usually have the time to read the newspaper. But let’s be honest, most of it is bad news. So on the Sundays of Lent, read the Good News instead. In other words, convert the amount of time that you would use to read the newspaper into reading Sacred Scripture. Try to finish one whole book, maybe Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John during those five Sundays of Lent. By Palm Sunday you will have finished the Gospels and then some.
Mondays of Lent: Pray the Rosary
On Mondays of Lent, think M—Mama Mary. Pray one simple act of prayer: the rosary. But the rosary can be kind of repetitive, can’t it?
There’s a way to say the rosary that will give you an opportunity to wholeheartedly pray for sixty people. Offer each of the first four prayers before the decades for Pope Francis, Cardinal Chito Tagle, the president of your country, and your congressman, respectively. When you get to the first of the five decades of the rosary, pray for your family members by name for each Hail Mary. If you have more than ten members, switch names every now and then. As you pray Hail Mary, think of them, either for a need that they have or in thanksgiving that they’ve been woven into the fabric of your life. These are penances that will help you prepare to love better.
On the second decade, pray for your classmates, your batch mates, those you work with, your boss, or your employees by name. Again, think of each one of them.
On the third mystery of the rosary, pray for us priests by name. We need your prayers, especially for priests who hear confessions that we may always welcome people there and clothe them in God’s cloak of mercy.
For the fourth mystery of the rosary, pray for your enemies. If you’re a good Catholic, you probaby have at least ten enemies. People who don’t like you, who talk behind your back, those against whom you have a grudge, those you can’t forgive, or those who have not forgiven you. Think of them and pray for each one of them by name. Normally, just thinking of them, you would get angry and upset. But if you’re praying for someone by name and saying, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee,” you’re doing something loving. You’re doing something kind, generous, and charitable that you normally wouldn’t do. That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “Pray for your enemies.” They might not change but you will. No longer will you be their spiritual and emotional slave. You’ll be free by the end of Lent if you pray for your enemies on Mondays.
For the fifth mystery, pray for those who have died—those you know and those you love who have gone ahead. Pray for them by name.
When you pray your rosary this way, you’ll be amazed at how quickly time will pass. If you want to have fun on one particular Monday, say, “Lord, inspire me with sixty people that I’ve known in my life that you want me to pray for.” You’ll be amazed that you’ll be reminded of people you haven’t thought of in ten years.
Tuesdays of Lent: Textless Tuesday
OK, here comes the challenging part. On Monday night, you will send a text announcing to all of your friends in your cell phone directory that you are declaring the next five Tuesdays of Lent as “Textless Tuesday.” This will last from Monday midnight until Tuesday midnight.
Think about the amount of time that we spend texting. Can you do without it for a day? They say the more time you spend on Facebook, the less successful you will be in your interpersonal relationships. So on gadgetless Tuesday, or at least social medialess Tuesday, you can choose whether you will fast from Twitter, Facebook, texting, viber, or whatever it happens to be. Instead, use that amount of time for quiet prayer either in your room or at a Eucharistic chapel where you will pray for your country and for world peace.
Wednesdays of Lent: Do Acts of Mercy
Finally, Wednesday is the day we put it all into practice as a disciple because we’re called but we’re also sent. Our Lord challenges us to go outside of ourselves and tells us how we will be judged at the end of our life: “When I was hungry, you gave Me to eat. Thirsty, you gave Me to drink. Ill or in prison, you came to visit Me. Naked, and you clothed Me. A stranger and you welcomed Me.”
On Wednesday morning, pray, “Lord, surprise me. Put someone in my path today whom You want me to touch with the gift of my time, talent, or treasure. Point out that person to me, Lord, and I promise to respond. Give me the grace to recognize who that person is.”
If you push through with these seven penances, the grace of God will transform and change you. You will become more of the saint He has called you to be. Pray that, by the help of God’s grace, we can do these, so that by the end of Lent, we won’t be saying, “Thank God that’s over.” Instead, we will recognize that penance really prepares us to be a better person, a more loving, detached Christian who cares about others and has a deeper relationship with God.
*This excerpt is taken from Deeper: Finding Grace In Every Season by Fr. Bob McConaghy, available on paperback and e-book copy at www.feastbooks.ph!