Four ways to have a more faithful, more merciful Lent

February 7, 2016

HOUSTON — Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 10 — a day of fasting and abstinence for Catholics. At Mass, a cross of ashes is place on the foreheads of Catholics to replicate an ancient penitential practice and symbolizes our dependence upon God’s mercy and forgiveness, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). 

This Lent, the faithful are encouraged to raise up the needs of the world in prayer, to sacrifice by giving up food and material wants, and to offer time, talent and treasure as good stewards of the gifts God has given them.

Lent is a time of conversion and a time to deepen one’s faith, demonstrating and sharing it through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, Pope Francis said.

“Faith finds expression in concrete everyday actions meant to help our neighbors in body and spirit,” the pope said in his message for Lent.

Feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, welcoming strangers, offering instruction, giving comfort — “on such things will we be judged,” the pope wrote in the message, which was released at the Vatican Jan. 26.
Particularly during the Year of Mercy, he said, Catholics are called to recognize their own need for God’s mercy, the greatness of God’s love seen in the death and resurrection of Christ and the obligation to assist others by communicating God’s love and mercy through words and deeds.

Through acts of mercy and charity, “by touching the flesh of the crucified Jesus in the suffering,” he wrote, “sinners can receive the gift of realizing that they too are poor and in need.”

“In the corporal works of mercy we touch the flesh of Christ in our brothers and sisters who need to be fed, clothed, sheltered, visited,” he wrote. “In the spiritual works of mercy — counsel, instruction, forgiveness, admonishment and prayer — we touch more directly our own sinfulness.”

In the Christian life, Pope Francis said, “the corporal and spiritual works of mercy must never be separated.”

As preparations begin for the 40 days of Lent, there are several things to consider:

U.S. bishops are encouraging Catholics to make going to confession a significant part of their spiritual lives. According to USCCB, “Dioceses are encouraged to make the sacrament available often during Lent and to use these resources to promote participation. We are also providing resources to help individuals who have not been to confession in a while “rediscover” the sacrament. Lent is a penitential season and as such religious practice such as daily Mass, the reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the devotion of the Stations of the Cross, works of charity and justice and acts of self-denial are highly encouraged. Visit to check schedules of a nearby Catholic Church.

The U.S. bishops said Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of universal fast and abstinence. Fasting is obligatory for all who have completed their 18th year and have not yet reached their 60th year. Fasting allows a person to eat one full meal. Two smaller meals may be taken, not to equal one full meal. Fridays in Lent are obligatory days of complete abstinence (from meat) for all who have completed their 14th year. Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, Wis., chairman of the Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis of the USCCB, said Lent is the only time many Catholics these days actually fast. “‘What are you giving up for Lent? Hot dogs? Beer? Jelly beans?’ It’s almost a game for some of us, but fasting is actually a form of penance, which helps us turn away from sin and toward Christ,” he said.

Bishop Ricken said Lent is a time to learn to love like Jesus Christ. “Giving of ourselves in the midst of our suffering and self-denial brings us closer to loving like Christ, who suffered and poured himself out unconditionally on the cross for all of us,” he said. “Lent is a journey through the desert to the foot of the cross on Good Friday, as we seek him out, ask his help, join in his suffering and learn to love like him.” 

Visit the Archdiocesan online parish locator and make plans to attend Mass on Ash Wednesday. One can also review and ponder all the daily readings during Lent by visiting the U.S. bishops’ website, “Lent is essentially an act of prayer spread out over 40 days,” Bishop Ricken said. “As we pray, we go on a journey, one that hopefully brings us closer to Christ and leaves us changed by the encounter with him.”

- The USCCB and CNS contributed to this report.