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Let’s keep this Lent a secret

| Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Next week sees the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. This means that for 40 days, not counting Sundays, the Church will enter her yearly period of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

So how are we to join our brethren in this observance? The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) lays out the five precepts of the Church, laying out the “very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort” (CCC 2041). The fourth of those precepts reads, “You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church” (CCC 2043).

What are these days of fasting and abstinence? We turn to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which notes that “[a]bstinence from meat … is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday” (Canon 1251). 

Wait … all Fridays? As in throughout the year?

Yes, meatless Fridays are still very much a thing in many other nations of the world, but each national conference of bishops “can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast,” according to the Code of Canon Law. And in its Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence in 1966, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops did precisely this, declaring first that “the obligation both to fast and to abstain from meat … still binds on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday” and “we preserved for our dioceses the tradition of abstinence from meat on each of the Fridays of Lent,” but proceeding to “emphasize that our people are henceforth free from the obligation traditionally binding under pain of sin in what pertains to Friday abstinence, except as noted above for Lent.”

While we the faithful are called, on non-Lenten Fridays, to substitute “other penitential observances” if we decide not to abstain from meat, and more generally to understand that “Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is the entire year,” this means that we Catholics in the United States have been dispensed from our obligation under canon law to abstain from meat every Friday throughout the year. 

So, to review: We fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and we are bound to abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. All Catholics above the age of 14 must abstain from meat on the proper days. Catholics between the ages of 18 and 60 must fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (Code of Canon Law 1252). That’s all more or less straightforward.

But what about that personal devotional practice of “giving something up for Lent”? Well, dear reader, allow me to stand on my soapbox of the week: In a season whose spirit is one of penance, let us not fall into the temptation to engage in one-upmanship.

Here’s the dilemma. Jesus tells us, rather emphatically, that when you fast, you are to “anoint your head and wash your face.” But how often do we tell other people what we’ve given up for Lent?

Sometimes we don’t even mean to do this. Take my Lenten experience two years ago as an example. I decided to give up any dark-colored pop (call it soda if you’d like; be wrong if you’d like), but since anyone who knows me knows just how locked in my food and drink preferences are, opting for a beverage not of a root beer or Cherry Coke variety was bound to arouse suspicion. Inquiries were raised, and I was thereby compelled to reveal that I had given these things up for Lent. I “received my reward,” to finish off Christ’s exhortation. A word of advice that I probably need to take for myself too: Lent is not about proving ourselves to other people. 

But Lent is also not about giving up the bad tendencies of our lives. What? Scandalous! I hear your preliminary outrage, dear reader. But do read on. Yes, it’s not the worst idea in the world to use Ash Wednesday as a springboard for bettering ourselves for the rest of our lives. Still, there are two pitfalls for the unwary in giving up a bad habit (like gossip, negativity or worse things) for Lent.

Since Lent comes to a temporal end at Easter, either (1) we succumb to the temptation to pick up that bad habit when Lent is over, which really misses the point, or (2) we continue not doing that bad thing, which is great, but then we’ve really given that bad thing up for good rather than just for Lent.

But worst of all, the concept of giving something up for Lent causes us to overly temper our collective joy when something awesome happens to fall during Lent. All the social conventions surrounding whether someone who has given something up for Lent should accept their exclusion from certain aspects of collective celebration in the name of heightening their penance, or whether someone with a Lenten celebration should simply temper down their celebration because it’s Lent, cause me to utter a groan of exasperation.

Maybe the solution is to lean into Jesus’ command that we anoint our heads and wash our faces when we fast. My challenge to you this Lent is this: Whatever you give up, keep it a secret. Tell no one what you’re doing or when you’re doing it. And let’s ban the six-word phrase “I gave that up for Lent” from our collective vocabulary. If someone offers you the thing you gave up? Accept it, appreciate your community of people and let that indulgence, connected with your penance, cause us to grow in love and service of God and each other.

Of course, don’t go seeking this kind of thing out; that misses the point too. And none of this advice applies to the things we all do as a greater Catholic community to commemorate Lent (fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, or abstaining from meat on Lenten Fridays), since if someone asks why we do those things, that’s a critical evangelism opportunity. In those situations, we can explain that Christ suffered and died for our sins to free us from the bonds of death, so we unite our small penitential Lenten sufferings to His big ones. What’s the difference? When we boast about our personal Lenten practices, we become like the people that Jesus decries for making a show of their fasting. But we can claim no real credit for doing what the Church asks of us during Lent — as the Catechism says, it’s the “very necessary minimum.” So may this Lent be filled blessings and many secret penances!

Devin is a member of the Notre Dame Law School’s class of 2023. Originally from Farwell, Michigan, he is a 2020 graduate of Michigan State University’s James Madison College. In his free time, he sings with the Notre Dame Folk Choir and discusses the legal developments of the day with anyone who will listen. Inquiries into his surplus of law journal articles and note ideas can be directed to [email protected] or @DevinJHumphreys on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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