Of the three penitential practices that mark the Lenten season— prayer, fasting and almsgiving — Pope Benedict’s Lenten message this year puts a focus on fasting. Why?
We can look at fasting from several angles. Fasting isn’t dieting, because the goal is not physical health but spiritual health. Since we are body and soul, however, what happens in the body affects the soul and vice versa. Fasting from physical food strengthens our spiritual life, our life with God, because body and soul are united. Fasting is part of a life spent with God; all the prophets fasted, as did Jesus himself.
Fasting from food leads to control of bodily appetites. It helps train us in submission to God’s will. It helps us to avoid disordered attachments and to make a complete gift of all we are to God. Fasting makes us realize again our complete dependence on God.
Fasting is a form of penance, a way of “making up” for the consequences of our sins and the sins of others. God gladly and lovingly forgives the sins of all who repent, but even forgiven sin has consequences. Even though we are sorry for them, our sins harm others and ourselves. This is why the priest, at the end of a good confession, will first absolve the sinner and then give a penance. The purpose of the penance is to heal the wounds our sins have caused, to set right the disrupted moral order of our lives and of society.
It often takes time to overcome the effects of sin. It’s like cleaning up after a hurricane, for sin sweeps away the moral pillars of our life with God. The greatest saints led penitential lives, constantly doing penance for themselves and for the sins of others. Just as we pray for others, whether they ask us or not, so also should we do penance for the sins of others, whether they ask us or not. Praying for and doing penance for others are examples of charity, of love of neighbor.
If there were a spiritual gift from God, given through the church, that would make more effective the penance we do for our already forgiven sins, we would consider it an undeserved indulgence from a loving God and a church filled with solicitude for our salvation. In fact, we do call such gifts “indulgences.” An indulgence does not give anyone permission to sin, nor does it guarantee “time off” in purgatory; these are ideas born of ignorance or prejudice. Rejection of indulgences is a sign of religious individualism, a denial that the Church mediates our relation to God.
An indulgence, given with the recitation of prayers or the making of pilgrimages or helping someone in need, substitutes for a more protracted form of penance, like spending seven years outside the church door and asking forgiveness of everyone going into Mass. Penances were severe in the first centuries of the church’s existence. The church, like an indulgent mother, now offers easier ways to do penance with the same spiritual effect as that flowing from lengthier and more severe penitential acts or practices.
The observance of Lent involves doing penance, and we should take advantage of the indulgences offered in order to increase the spiritual benefits of our penance. But much of the life of penance is marked by the effort, with God’s grace, to prevent sin before it happens, to overcome the habits that lead us to sin. As is often suggested, fasting from food should be part of “fasting” from anger, laziness, pride, lust, jealousy and other inclinations to sin.
Voluntary fasting from food also helps us to be brothers and sisters to those who are involuntarily hungry. Many of our parishes offer very simple suppers during Lent, along with prayer and reflection. Money saved by eating less is given to the hungry and those without an adequate share in the necessities of life. Donations to food kitchens that feed the hungry are a way of participating in the Lenten fast. Fasting delivers us from a materialism that blinds us to the needs of others.
Finally, as Pope Benedict reminds us in his Lenten message (see www.vatican. va), “Denying ourselves material food, which nourishes our body, nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by his saving word. Through fasting and praying, we allow him to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being: the hunger and thirst for God.”
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Mt 5:6). Righteousness means being rightly related to God and others. When we do penance for our sins and develop habits of virtue, we become strongly connected to God. Lent places us on that track; observance of Lent leads us along a way that makes us what God most wants us to be: disciples of his divine son.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago