March 2007 - Volume 11, Issue 8
6 Essential Lenten Elements
Church finances are a hot topic. And it's a topic that deserves to be taken seriously. After all, parishioners have a right to know that their contributions are being used well and wisely for the mission of the Church. That is why in the month of March you will receive a comprehensive Stewardship Report on the state of diocesan finances. In that same spirit of transparency and accountability, the diocese, drawing on best practices currently found in our parishes, put in place a program of six key elements to strengthen parish financial procedures and controls. You've read about them in the pages of this paper and can find a progress report on the implementation of these six key elements on our website (www.bridgeportdiocese.com).
It's not my purpose to dwell on those six elements yet again but, rather, to draw a lesson from them. When we wanted to increase the transparency and accountability of parish finances, we identified the steps that had to be taken. Similarly, if we want to increase transparency and accountability in our relationships with God, we also need a program. Fortunately, we don't have to invent a new one. It's called "Lent" and it has existed from time immemorial!
As we enter upon this season of grace, we need to ask: What's our goal and what's our plan? I would suggest our goal ought to be "transparency" and "accountability" of our spiritual lives. It's easy to assign those goals to institutions and to other people but harder when the subject, is our own soul. So you and I need to ask if were truly "honest to God!" Are there dark corners in our hearts where we will not permit the light of Christ to shine? Do we prevent the sunshine of God's love from exposing our inner demons - those inward, unworthy thoughts, feelings, and tendencies that often are the source of sinful behavior and of harm to ourselves and others? And do we presume that God's mercy will not hold us accountable for our thoughts and deeds?
In reality, transparency and accountability are all about truly opening our mind and heart to God. It's giving God permission to shine the searchlight into our labyrinthine hearts, knowing it may reveal things we'd rather not deal with. It's giving God permission to help us confront the evil in our hearts so that He may apply His healing mercy and thus equip us to be more open, honest, and loving with our spouses, families, co-workers, and friends. Of course, this is a lifetime process but it will only happen if we either start now or resolve now deepen our response to God's grace.
If transparency and accountability constitute our personal and ecclesial Lenten goal, then what action steps does God's love suggest and make possible in our lives? May I suggest six key elements in our Lenten program of transparency and accountability?
The first is prayer. Lent is the season to start praying seriously, or if we are already doing so, to intensify our prayer. What is the quality of our prayer? Is it deep and intimate, or superficial? Do we really open our soul to God when we pray, or do we mouth a few words and try to end the session as quickly as possible? Are we afraid to be alone in God's presence, to contemplate the face of Christ, to look the Lord in the eye? No matter what state our souls are in, we should not fear to be with God in prayer. We should begin asking pardon of our sins and making renewed acts of faith, hope, and love. We should pour out our hearts to God and then listen for the voice of the Shepherd of souls. Let His heart speak to your heart!
Serious prayer leads to the second element, a sincere examination of conscience. As we make our interior journey to God, we'll recognize the potholes of venial sin and perhaps even the roadblock of mortal sin. We may find deep-seated chronic sins we've never seriously dealt with. God loves us so much, He won't pretend those things don't exist in us nor will He encourage pretense in our relationship with Him, with ourselves, and others. Gently and patiently, God's Holy Spirit will help us to see and acknowledge those things which, in the light of His law of love, need to be changed. When the prodigal son came to this precise point in his life, in spite of his misery, he experienced a newfound freedom and began his journey back to his father. We will know that same freedom and joy when we become accountable for what is in the depth of our hearts.
This leads to the third essential element of our Lenten program - a thorough and contrite confession of our sins in the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation. Some have suggested that Penance is "the forgotten sacrament," but if our goal is transparency and accountability, we do well to remember it, not just during Lent but throughout the year. The act of confessing is the rough equivalent of sharing the contents of one's inward "audit," that is, one's examination of conscience, with Christ's representative, the priest. Pope Benedict XVI recently stressed that the confessor is to be "an active instrument of divine mercy." His Holiness explained how a confessor, "following the Church's Magisterium with gentle insistence, becomes a minister of the consoling mercy of God, [as] he emphasizes the reality of sin, and at the same time, reveals the limitless renovating power of divine love, the love that restores life."
The next essential element is the Eucharist. If we want the redeeming power of Christ's love to take root in our hearts and to transform our relationship with God and others, there is no substitute for recommitting to Sunday Eucharist. Unfortunately, over the past few decades, some Catholics have adopted a casual attitude toward Sunday Mass. The tendency is to go when one "feels like it" or when there isn't something deemed more important going on either Saturday night or Sunday. If our examination of conscience and confession have been transparent, we will hold ourselves accountable for missing Sunday Mass, and more than that, we will give the Eucharist the central place it deserves in our life of faith.
In the words of the Second Vatican Council, the Eucharist is "the source and summit of the Christian life" (Lumen Gentium, 11). Here is where we find the strength to lead lives of integrity, to repair and maintain our relationship with God and others on an ongoing basis; here is the source by which we can endlessly deepen our knowledge and love of Christ and share in what he has done to bring about our salvation. Here is where we encounter the God of love and learn to love as God loves.
The last and by no means the least elements of our Lenten program must be to share the love we have received from God and the Church by engaging in serious mortification coupled with personal service to the needs of others. A sincere examination of conscience and confession will uncover our self-centeredness which blinds us to the needs of those around us and discourages us from sharing our blessings with others. Our Lenten program takes a two-pronged approach to this problem: first, we deny ourselves comforts by penitential practices such as fasting; and at the same time, we go out of our way to help others, not only by donations but also by personal service to those in need.
This, I would suggest, is a six-point Lenten program aiming at spiritual transparency and accountability. God is offering us the grace we need to fulfill this plan, perhaps to set our lives on a new course. Are we willing to accept His gift and challenge? I hope and pray so!
"Now is the acceptable time, this is the day of salvation!" (II Corinthians 6:2)
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