Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator
Most Catholics will immediately recognize the Gospel passage assigned to Wednesday of the 11th Week in Ordinary Time. The same verses are used every year on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of the Lenten Season. Prayer, fasting and alms giving form the three-fold charter of the forty day preparation period before Easter and the celebration of the Paschal Mystery. Its inclusion here is part of the continuous reading of the Gospel of St. Matthew which occurs every year in the Lectionary for Mass.
As I pondered the Gospel this morning, I was reminded of something that may seem a little strange to Catholics who are used to limiting penances to forty days. Most of the saints practiced such penances much more frequently. Venerable Matt Talbot, for instance, abstained from meat in his diet nine months of the year. St. Francis of Assisi fasted almost his entire life after his conversion; as a result, fasting became a regular part of the Franciscan life for centuries after his death. Not only did he keep a forty day Lent before Easter, he also prepared for other major feast days with another "lent." The first name that was given to the religious order that he founded was the Order of Penitents.
Before the II Vatican Council, penance and penitential practices were a part of Catholic life. Four times a year, Ember Days (Wednesday, Friday and Saturday) punctuated each of the four seasons of the year. Fridays were a day of complete abstinence from meat. During Lent, Catholics fasted Monday through Saturday, and ate meat only once a day.
Pope Paul VI published an encyclical letter after the Council in which he changed the penitential practices of the Church and reduced the number of required days of fasting to two and limited abstinence to the Fridays of Lent. However, the same encyclical letter urged Catholics to continue practicing penance on a voluntary basis rather than as a law or rule of the Church. Penance is still an important part of our lives for it reminds us of our limitations and of our need for God. While Lent is an intensive time of prayer, fasting and alms giving, it should be noted that these Gospel passages are more than simple suggestions. Prayer, fasting and alms giving are the road to heaven.