The final days march past: Was there any news in Lent 2014?

Let’s face it folks. There is a very real possibility that this posts exists as a rather flimsy excuse to post this wonderfully ironic Baton Rouge, La., photograph sent by a witty priest to Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher.

Now Lent is almost over, so it’s now or never.

Actually, this photo does symbolize a question — a journalistic question, actually — that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit during Great Lent this year: Do mainstream journalists realize that there is more to Lent than food?

I mean, the U.S. Catholic bishops have in recent years put quite a bit of effort into a public campaign to promote — following ages and ages of tradition — the importance of believers going to Confession during the season of Lent. I kind of expected that this the “light is still on” effort might get more press attention this time around, especially after the media-storm called Pope Francis did a daring thing the other day by choosing to go to Confession in clear view of the world.

So take a look at a Google News search for “Catholics,” “Lent,” “Confession” and “light on.”

Not much, right?

So we’re back to food.

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Did Pope Francis have to go to confession?

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RACHAEL ASKS:

Who does the pope go to if he has to go to confession or is he exempt because he’s the pope?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The pope gets no pass because he’s the pope.

Pope Francis, who has shown a flair for the dramatic his first year in office, demonstrated this in highly unusual fashion during this Lenten season, which puts special emphasis on contrition for sin. On March 28, to the surprise of worshippers in St. Peter’s Basilica, the pontiff publicly kneeled before a priest with his back to the cameras and congregation and confessed his sins for about three minutes. The AP reported the priest seemed to chuckle so perhaps he was also surprised. Then Francis joined 61 priests along the sanctuary walls who heard confessions from penitents, something popes usually do on Good Fridays.

The doctrine of original sin says (and history sometimes proves) that the popes are flawed humans just like all the rest of us. A pope’s infallibility involves only his personal definitions of faith and morals.

Francis explained at a weekly “general audience” talk last November that “priests and bishops too have to go to confession. We are all sinners. Even the pope confesses every 15 days, because the pope is also a sinner. And the confessor hears what I tell him; he counsels me and forgives me, because we are all in need of this forgiveness.”

Francis appreciates performing this priestly function. In off-the-cuff remarks on Pentecost Eve last year he said he regrets he cannot do it more often. “When I go to listen to confession — and I can’t yet because to go out and listen to confession, well, I can’t leave this place. But that’s another issue … ”

Catholicism asks all parishioners to regularly confess in order to be in the proper spiritual state to receive Communion, and by all means to do so during Lent.

Confession must be done before a priest who alone can grant absolution on God’s behalf and prescribe deeds of piety and charity as “satisfaction” for sin, as opposed to Protestants’ individual or group prayer for forgiveness directly to God. Francis stated in the November talk that God himself wills that believers “receive forgiveness by means of the ministers of the community.”

Penance (also called the sacrament of reconciliation) is so central that it takes up 76 sections in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This includes the teaching, rejected by Protestants, that the church has the unique power to grant “indulgences” that remove partial or full punishment due to sin for either the living or the dead in Purgatory. Observance of Penance has declined this past generation more than with the church’s other six sacraments (Communion, baptism, confirmation, clergy ordination, marriage and the anointing of the sick).

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One thing wrong with that ‘give up one thing for Lent’ thing

I don’t know precisely when it happened, but somewhere during the past decade or two Lent became cool for all kinds of people, including Godbeat reporters.

Lent wasn’t just for Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox (whoever they were) anymore. Lent was for edgy free-church Protestants, bookish evangelicals and all of the mainline Protestants, not just the Episcopalians. You had church leaders handing out Lenten meditation booklets and holding Lenten retreats and maybe even adding a mid-week Lenten service for the truly die-hard worshippers.

Lent was both cool and innovative. In other words, all of this new create-your-own Lent stuff was news. And at the center of it all was one central theme: What are you going to give up for Lent?

This was the big question, of course, the question that linked the new Lent, supposedly, to the old Catholic Lent.

Let’s look at a typical mini-feature earlier this week built on this concept (there were many to choose from), care of The Cleveland Plain Dealer:

The 40-day period of Lent starts today with Ash Wednesday as many Christian denominations give up something to recognize the sacrifices of Jesus Christ.

An analysis of Twitter revealed the most-mentioned Lenten sacrifices this year. Chocolate was number one, followed by alcohol, Twitter, social networking and swearing. Other popular items like forgoing sweets, soda, coffee and fast food also made the top 20.

But not all the Lenten tweets were serious. A high number of people posted they were passing up on Lent or giving up “giving up things.” (Read the top 100 here)

In you’re having trouble thinking of something to give up for Lent, the website WhatToGiveUpForLent.com can help. They suggest not watching television, smoking, using credit cards, gossiping and lying for 40 days.

Of course, the story noted that people can add some kind of (spiritual) discipline during Lent. What about “exercising, volunteering, being on time and staying positive.” Apparently going to confession, traditional forms of fasting, increased prayers, almsgiving, Bible study, etc., etc., didn’t make the list.

The mini-feature ended with a reader participation note: “So do you participate in Lent? What are you giving up or adding?”

So what is missing from this picture?

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Keeping Lent: Not once a year but four times

TERRY (YES, that TERRY) ASKS:

Whatever happened to the Lenten disciplines that used to be part of Advent, in the weeks before Nativity? How do they differ from the season of Lent?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

As Christendom nears the annual season of Lent, this refers to the Orthodox Church’s little-known practice of not just one but four seasons each year of Lenten-type fasting. “Great Lent” leading up to Easter is familiar. But traditionally, Orthodoxy also observes a Nativity Fast from mid-November (or later) through Christmas Eve, and two other seasons of abstinence from specified food and drink.

As the question indicates, average Eastern Orthodox members in western nations often ignore the traditional disciplines except for Great Lent. And Bishop Timothy Ware of Oxford, England, a British convert to Orthodoxy who became a bishop, remarks that the customary regimen “will astonish and even appall many western Christians.” In other words, these ancient traditions tend to be practiced even less in Western churches, including among Roman Catholics.

Father Thomas Hopko, retired dean of St. Vladimir’s seminary (and a high school friend of The Guy) explains the Orthodox concept.

First, why fast at all? Simply because Jesus taught this Jewish practice to his followers. In the Sermon on the Mount he said “when you fast,” not “if you fast,” indicating it’s a regular aspect of the life of faith. Jesus also said fasting should be a private matter without showing off one’s piety (Matthew 6:16-18).

The purpose is not to afflict oneself, Hopko insists. “God has no pleasure in the discomfort of his people.” Nor does it somehow pay for one’s sins, which can only occur through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. “Salvation is a ‘free gift of God’ which no works of man can accomplish of merit” (citing the biblical Romans 5:15-17 and Ephesians 2:8-9).

Rather, fasting is meant “to liberate oneself from dependence on the things of this world in order to concentrate on the things of the Kingdom of God,” to facilitate prayer, and to empower the soul to avoid sin.

These disciplines originated with monks early in Orthodox history but came to be recommended for all parishioners. Fasting is entirely a voluntary choice. The ill, the aged, the very young and nursing mothers are not asked to abstain. Newcomers to fasting may be advised to ease into the practices rather than following the full regimen. Rules are quite complex and vary by season and jurisdiction, but here’s a customary routine for Great Lent:

“Meatfare Sunday” (February 23 this year) is the last day till Easter when those keeping the fast eat meat, poultry or fish (with backbones; other seafood is often permitted). “Cheesefare Sunday” (March 2) is the last day when dairy products and eggs are consumed. Great Lent begins the following day with a total fast from food and drink except for a little water.

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Got news? A fishy hole in all those Lent stories

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So it’s a Friday in Lent (only in Western churches, at this point), so what did you have for lunch?

As a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, I have always been interested in how other ancient churches — think Rome and, to some degree, Canterbury — handle the great fasting seasons. When you add them all up, including our normal fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays, practicing Orthodox Christians live as vegans or, at the very least, vegetarians more than half the year. The Catholic Church, in recent decades, has been having a lively debate about the relevance of fish on Fridays.

My point isn’t theological. Actually, I think there is an interesting story here, one that rarely shows up in the mainstream press (I mean, beyond your basic Lenten fast food stories, such as this item from Nation’s Restaurant News). Those stories tend to lead to this kind of reporting:

Every year restaurant chains focus their menu development and marketing to make sure they are not giving up traffic and sales between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, a 40-day period when Christians observing Lent abstain from certain vices or habits.

For most foodservice brands that means stepping up seafood and fish offerings for the season when Christians typically stop eating meat on Fridays.

This year several chains, including McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr. and Wendy’s, are finding new ways to market fish items typically promoted during Lent, which began on Feb. 13. Some chains are even thinking beyond the typical fried fish sandwich.

Well, it’s understandable that this story focuses on the dominant liturgical Christian tradition in our culture, which would be Catholicism. I get that.

However, this brings me to my main point: What is Lent, these days, even for practicing Catholics? What are the agreed-upon practices for keeping a holy Lent?

In particular, I’d like to ask for input from GetReligion readers, especially this site’s many Catholic readers: Does anyone know where this whole “give up one thing for Lent” idea came from? I dug into this five years ago for a Scripps Howard column and I couldn’t find anyone who knew the facts on where this universally discussed sort-of tradition came from.

It didn’t come from from Catholicism. We can’t blame the Lutherans or Anglicans. It’s sure as heck not from Eastern Orthodoxy.

This is important for several reasons, not the least of which is that it’s a great case study for the state of Catholic spiritual disciplines and practices post-Vatican II. Here’s an even more important question: How many American Catholics are going to Confession before receiving Communion at Easter?

But back to the “one thing for Lent” thing. Here is what I found several years ago, talking to one popular Catholic apologist:

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