As with so many traditions in the Church, Lent has evolved over the years.  People began to emphasize more “giving” rather than “giving up.” The sober and serious tone of the forty days of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, became lighter and less intense. 

Sure, the Church continued to accent the penitential nature of Lent, but it did so in different ways, stressing things that were more positive rather than negative. The obligation to sacrifice something was emphasized less as the most immediate item on the Lenten agenda.

I am a great believer in the “both/and” rather than the “either/or” approach to life. And, so, for me Lent is a holy season of penance when I feel called, as a Catholic, by the very nature and purpose of Lent, to both “give up” and to “give” something.

In my own prayer and reflection as Bishop of the Diocese, I recognize my responsibility to guide the faithful of the Diocese – clergy, religious and laity alike – in living out our Christian life in pursuit of holiness. Lent is a time to intensify the pursuit of holiness as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s own passion, death and resurrection, the central mysteries of our Catholic faith. 

And, so, together – bishop and clergy, religious and laity – let us focus our attention on the call to holiness that is at the heart of our Lenten journey and at the heart of our life’s journey.

Each weekend we profess our common belief in “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.”  I discussed these “four marks of the Church” at length in my first pastoral letter as Bishop. There, I reminded us of the Scripture passage that says: “As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, ‘Be holy because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1: 15-16). The Church gives us the season of Lent as an aid in that process. And here’s the motivation:

“… the Church’s call to holiness is rooted in Christ’s own invitation to be holy in imitation of him. The holiness of the Church is not merely a reflection of but, rather, an identification with the very holiness of God.  Can the Church be anything less than what God calls her to be in imitation of him?” (Pastoral Letter, August 28, 2012)

That is a strong motivation to give Lent, and the growth in holiness it offers, our best shot.  Yes, “giving up” something and making sacrifices are an important part of the Lenten experience in the Church but if they don’t lead us to deeper holiness, a closer, life-altering identification with Jesus Christ and his Gospel , they are empty gestures. 

It’s like going on a diet for a while. We’ll lose some weight for sure but if we don’t make up our minds to change our eating behaviors or if we lose our motivation, the weight will only return and more. Lent and its sacrifices should connect us on a deeper level with the Lord Jesus Christ, should lead us in a more profound way to a closer identification with him who suffered and died on the cross for us. 

Giving up. Sacrifice. Every individual Catholic has to decide this Lent “what MORE can I do, can I give up for him?” Lent should help us say, “With Christ, I am nailed to the cross. And the life I live is no longer my own. It is the life of Christ who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2: 19-20).

And the other part of the Lenten “both/and” equation – giving something – needs to be addressed. As with sacrifice and penance, our Lenten “giving” must lead us to holiness in Jesus Christ. He is the reason why we give. It is his face we see in the face of others. “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me” (Matthew 25: 40).

As Bishop, I would like to offer a thought on something that can bring the “both/and” of Lent together for us – time; giving up my time so that I can give my time to others and grow in holiness.
Perhaps this Lent, whether we are young or old or somewhere in between, we can give some prayerful thought to “time” and how we can use it in our pursuit of holiness.

First, give time to God. Slow it all down and make time for God in prayer. What could be more important than making time for the One who created us, who loves us as we are, who cares for us every moment of the day, who promised to be “with us all days”(Matthew 28:20), who will call us home after this life is done?  I mean, really. I can make time for just about anything else. Why can’t I find time for God? Why can’t I give up some time for him? 

Go to Mass. Less than 20% of Catholics in the Diocese of Trenton go to Mass every Saturday/Sunday. What else is so important, more important than giving up an hour or so once a week to hear God’s Word, to receive him in the Eucharist, to bring our children and families to the Lord, to reflect on what is truly important in life, to join other Catholics in what the Second Vatican Council calls “the source and summit of the Christian life?” 

It takes time but, honestly, not that much. Can I go to the gym or exercise later?  Will the mall or grocery store still be there when I leave church? Will things that I need or want to do around the house disappear if I go to Mass for an hour once a week? Aren’t there several times each week when Mass is offered in my parish or another parish close by so that I can still do these other things? 

Let me recommend that this Lent is a time for decision to commit ourselves to give time to God and to get to church. Mass is not an option for the Catholic, it is an obligation and for good reason. We are faithful to other obligations. Why not give up some time to be faithful to that one? Lent is the perfect time to re-connect.

Personal Prayer.  One of the easiest things we can give up are the distractions that push God away. Prayer isn’t difficult. It is as simple as closing our eyes for a moment or two and just remembering that God is present everywhere, especially within us. God gives us everything and we are so blessed.  Stop and say thanks. We also have many challenges and concerns in life, things that even cause us suffering and heartache. Offer them to God and ask his guidance and help. 

We may feel alone at times. Remember that God is always with us. We sin. Ask God’s forgiveness. Go to confession even if it’s been a long time. Why hold on to sins like they are some hidden treasures? Let go. The old saying is on target: “Live as though everything depends upon you but pray like everything depends upon God.” Say prayers that you know. Pray in your own words. Give up a little more time for God this Lent. 

Confession. You’ve heard the cliché “confession is good for the soul.” Those who take advantage of the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation regularly do so because it is true! We are all sinners and, therefore, we are all in need of the mercy of God. Why not “give” him our sins and failings and ask him for the forgiveness and healing that he, alone, can give? It’s good for the soul! 

Whether it was last week, last month, during Advent or many years ago, the Lord invites us to seek him out, to account for our sins and missteps, to express contrition and a purpose of amendment, to receive absolution and to leave the confessional or reconciliation room in church with the burdens of our conscience lifted.  Lent is a time to make a fresh start. 

Second, give time to others.  Everyone is busy. Everyone has things to do. But everything that we are in life, everything that we have in life bears the” fingerprints” of someone else. Our parents; our children; our friends; our neighbors; our co-workers. Do we give them enough time? Could they use or do they really need just a little bit more time? 

The elderly, especially elderly parents or members of the family. Would it hurt to call or visit them, to give them some time? Sometimes they just want someone to listen or to talk to them as though they mattered. Is our time so important?

Our children. The world in which we live is sometimes a scary place. Our children don’t come with a set of instructions. There are forces out there willing or, worse, eager to drag them down or lead them along the wrong path. Alcohol. Drugs. Sex. Manipulative relationships. Bullying. Peer-pressure. Gossip.  Harsh judgments. A little more love and attention – a little more time – could make all the difference. They may act like they don’t want or need us. But they do.

People we know who are sick or alone or struggling. How about a call or visit to them or just making the time to sit down and write them a note or letter or even an email? Are we that busy, too busy? It only takes a few minutes of our time.

On a larger scale, have we ever thought about giving our time as a volunteer to those with special needs? Not all our time, no but some of it. The poor. The hungry. The homeless. The sick. Lent may be the time to “give time” as a path to holiness.

The Scriptures tell us that there are two great commands: love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus Christ tells us that “the command I give you is this: love one another as I have loved you” (John 15: 12). Love takes time. Are we willing to give something up out of love? Are we willing to give love? This Lent is the time, at least, to give an answer.

May you have a blessed Lenten season! 

To view a video recording of Bishop O'Connell's Lenten message, click here.