We are asked during Lent to allow our hearts to receive a conversion to Jesus. We give things up in order to become more like our savior. We add more prayer. We set a goal for ourselves on our road to salvation.
We also celebrate in the Easter Vigil the conversion of many to our Catholic faith. It is with great joy and celebration that we welcome our new brothers and sisters into the church. My father was a convert in the pre-RCIA days when he and I were baptized together and he was also confirmed. Later, he served as an RCIA sponsor when I was growing up as well as being a Godfather to a few children. So, I view new members of the church with a special tenderness based upon my own experience.
Recently, I've noticed a trend among many of my friends who are more recently joined members of the Catholic Church than I am (having been baptized as an infant and been raised in the Church). Over the last few years when I would engage these people in discussions of lent, I would be amazed at the list of things they were giving up or adding for the season. One friend told me that she was going to add daily mass, all the mysteries of the Rosary every day, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy at 3am and 3 pm, daily readings and bible study 3 times a week. That was a VERY impressive list. In addition, she was giving up all meat (including fish) for the entire 46 days (not taking Sundays off), as well as coffee, all sweets and as much fat as possible. WOW! Two weeks into lent, I ran into this friend again who was feeling dejected because she was drinking coffee again, couldn't get up at 3 am to do the Chaplet and found herself falling asleep at Daily Mass.
After witnessing this crash and burn, I began wondering why so many of my non-cradle Catholic friends approached Lent with such zeal and were so eager to don the sackcloth and ashes. I honestly didn't think it was that they wanted to be holier than thou, so what was it?
After asking a few people I started to piece it together. Everyone, in some way, was saying they wanted to make sure they were "getting it right." They had grown up not understanding why Catholics ate fish on Fridays and would deprive themselves of television for six weeks. They didn't want to make a mistake with this whole lent thing. And then there were a few who flat out had told me that they "needed to make up for lost time." As one said, she had 26 years to make up for. I was sad she felt that way. I think back to last Sunday's reading from Isaiah where God advised that past sins were forgiven and there was no longer a need to atone for them once penance was done. I tried to encourage this woman to not focus on the time she didn't have as a Catholic, but to enjoy the time now. I'm not sure if she understood me though.
Last year, at Ash Wednesday mass, our priest said in his homily that it was important we pick things to add or give up that we actually believe ourselves capable of doing and that would not cause ourselves any harm. He said the key to "dooming oneself to failure" during lent was to choose too many things. After all, Lent only lasts six weeks. He encouraged people to adopt good habits or give up a vice that they might consider adding or leaving even after Lent was over. I saw a few RCIA candidates at that mass eating up the priest's words. I smiled, hoping they would understand it isn't about doing it right or making up for lost time, it's about becoming closer to Christ.
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