Friday, February 26, 2010

Archbishop Nienstedt: Above All, Lent is about Conversion

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By the time you read this column, we will already be one full week into the liturgical season of Lent. Because of the unique opportunity that this season offers us as a community of faith to engage in works of prayer, fasting and charity, I would like to take this privileged opportunity to share the following thoughts with you.

I was honored to be invited to celebrate Mass this past Ash Wednesday at our fine archdiocesan school, St. Thomas Academy. I reminded the assembled cadets that Lent is much more than just giving up candy for a 40-day stretch.

I did so, not to discourage them from undertaking significant sacrifices during these six weeks, but rather to point out that our external acts of prayer, fasting and almsgiving should flow from and lead to a real internal change of heart.

Above all, I told them, Lent is about conversion. And conversion means a turning around. That is, the turning around of those attitudes that underlie our words and actions.

I told the young men: “If I am having problems with my father or mother, I try to turn around the way I react to them and attempt to look at their situation differently. If I can’t get along with someone in class, I try to stand in the other person’s shoes and look at reality the way he or she sees it. If there is a teacher or group of people I avoid or never talk to, I ask myself, ‘Why?’ and then set out to change the relationship and make it better.”

Again, conversion is more an internal process than an external one. The impetus must come from within our minds and hearts first and, only then, will we be able to manifest this new reality externally with any kind of fidelity.

Walking with others

This is the same process of conversion that our catechumens and candidates have embarked upon in their journey toward baptism or full communion with the Catholic Church.

In fact, the original purpose of Lent was to walk with those preparing for baptism through (what we now call) the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) as they move from an initial period of investigating the faith in a pre-catechumenate, to being admitted formally into the catechumenate, to being enrolled through the Rite of Election into the final period of “purification or enlightenment.”

This final stage also involves a series of “scrutinies” that are likewise celebrated in a communal context. As catechumens pray to be delivered from all evil by a dying-to-sin, so, too, the community, the family of faith that awaits these new members at Easter, asks for the grace of ongoing forgiveness and reconciliation.

One of the high moments of Lent should, therefore, be the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance, when we confess our sins to a priest and receive the forgiveness of God administered through the lips of him who stands in the place of Christ.

Sacrament of healing

Archbishop Robert Carlson, a son of this local church and current shepherd of St. Louis, has written a fine pastoral letter in which he compares going to confession to a visit to the doctor’s office.

First, the doctor examines our symptoms, then he offers a diagnosis for the underlying cause of our illness, and finally he prescribes a course of treatment.

Likewise in confession, we describe the symptoms of our sinful acts to the confessor. He, in turn, assists us in determining the underlying causes for that sin in the attitudes or habits of our heart, and finally, he offers the healing of Jesus in the words of absolution and offers a penance to ensure that the healing continues in our daily life.

The root cause of most sin lies in what we call the seven capital or deadly sins: pride, greed, envy, anger, lust, gluttony or sloth (laziness).

If we examine the pattern of our words or actions, usually we find behind them one or another of these deadly sins. Let’s examine ourselves this Lent and turn away from those capital sins that distance us from God and from our neighbor.

Lent is so much more than just giving up candy, or beer or an iPod for 40 days. It’s about conversion. It’s about change. It’s about turning around in the ways I act toward God, myself or my neighbor. It is, in the end, all about freedom and joy. Catholic Spirit
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