Lent, a time for Repentance
Repentance is turning away from sin and back to God. Usually, this includes some form of penance, to express our sorrow and desire to renew our lives (c.f. Jer. 18:11, 25:5; Ez. 18:30, 33:11-15; Joel 2:12; Mt. 3:2; Mt. 4:17; Acts 2:38).
Christ Himself said that His disciples would fast once He had departed (Lk. 5:35). The general law of penance given by the Church, is therefore an expression of the law of God for us.
The Church for her part has specified certain forms of penance, both to ensure that her members will do something, as required by Divine will, while making it easy for them to fulfil their obligation. The 1983 Code of Canon Law specifies the obligations of Latin Rite Catholics [Eastern Rite Catholics have their own penitential practices given in the Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches].
- Canon 919: One who is to receive the Most Holy Eucharist is to abstain from any food or drink, with the exception of water and medicine, for at least the period of one hour before Holy Communion.
- Canon 1250: All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the entire Church.
- Canon 1251: Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
- Canon 1252: All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are bound by the law of abstinence; all adults are bound by the law of fast up to the beginning of their sixtieth year. Nevertheless, pastors and parents are to see to it that minors who are not bound by the law of fast and abstinence are educated in an authentic sense of penance.
- Canon 1253: It is for the conference of bishops to determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence and to substitute in whole or in part for fast and abstinence other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.
Those who are excused from fasting or abstinence
Besides those outside the age limits, those not of good mental health, the sick, the frail, pregnant or nursing women according to need for meat or nourishment, manual labourers according to need, guests at a meal who cannot excuse themselves without giving offense to their host, and other situations of moral or physical impossibility to observe the penitential discipline.
Aside from these minimum penitential requirements, Catholics are encouraged to impose some personal penance on themselves at other times. It could be modelled after abstinence and fasting. A person could, for example, multiply the number of days they abstain. Some people give up meat entirely for religious motives (as opposed to those who give it up for health or other motives). Some religious orders, as a penance, never eat meat. Similarly, one could multiply the number of days that one fasted. The early Church had a practice of a Wednesday and Saturday fast. This fast could be the same as the Church’s law (one main meal and two smaller ones) or stricter, even bread and water. Such freely chosen fasting could also consist in giving up something one enjoys – chocolates, soft drinks, smoking, and so on. This is left to the individual.
Jesus reminds us to: “Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice; by doing this you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven” (c.f. Matthew 6:1-6,16-18). We should therefore never seek our vainglory, but do everything out of genuine love of God and our neighbour.