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Prayers & Devotions

Observance of Lent - Part II

Fast and Penance in the Season of Lent
Suggestions for Family Observance of Lent

[Illustration - Book of Gospels © Midwest Theological Forum - see links page]

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

“The main current of Lent must flow through the interior man, through hearts and consciences. The essential effort of repentance consists in this. In this effort the human determination to be converted to God is invested with the predisposing grace of conversion and, at the same time, of forgiveness and of spiritual liberation.”

This Lenten reflection by Pope John Paul II at the general audience on Ash Wednesday, 1979, indicates the attitude with which we should approach our observance of this penitential season — a season that begins with a sign of repentance so ancient as to be almost lost in antiquity, and continues with penitential action equally ageless.

Putting ashes on our heads as a form of penitence is a practice inherited from Jewish tradition. In Old Testament times, fast days expressed sorrow for sins and the desire to make atonement to the Father. Ashes, for Jews and Christians alike, are a sign of repentance, sorrow, and mourning. The King of Nineveh believed the prophecy of Jonah and fasted forty days wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes to save the city, and ordered the people to do so, too (Jon 3:4-10). Jeremiah calls Israel to “wallow in ashes” of repentance (Jer 6:26). Abraham speaks of being unworthy to speak with God because he is “but dust and ashes” (Gen 2:7) — being man, he is created from dust. Jesus also refers to this symbol in Matthew 11:21, “Alas for you, Chorazin! Alas for you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” 

The ashes imposed on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday are a reminder of our unworthiness and sinfulness — a sinfulness that corrupts and stains us and leads to death (we return to the dust from whence we came.) Ashes remind us of our original sin and our need for redemption — our need to be cleansed of sin and made worthy of salvation. This is why the priest says, as he imposes ashes on our foreheads, “Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you will return” (Gen 3:19), or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel” (Mk 1:15). 

We cannot appreciate God’s infinite mercy if we do not realize that we need mercy. We cannot understand salvation apart from our recognition of our need to be saved, rescued, from something — namely our sin — that otherwise separates us forever from God. Ashes remind us of this need. When we wear the ashes on our heads, we also acknowledge the sacrifice of Christ, who forever substituted His own death for the burnt offerings made by Old Testament priests to atone for the sins of the people.

On Jewish fast days, or days of atonement, the penitent customarily wore sackcloth (burlap), placed ashes on his head, and went barefoot. These traditions associated with penance continued to be observed by the early Christians, although Jesus warned against ostentatious public displays of penance (see Mt 6:16-18).

In the New Testament, fasting had similar significance, but times of fasting were also a time of intensified prayer and willingness to abide by the will of Christ and the Father who sent Him.

We also fast because of 1) our sorrow at the loss of the Lord: “The days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away, and then shall they fast” (Lk 5:33-35);  2) our intention of giving our Christian life more depth and more seriousness of purpose: Pope Leo the Great says in his forty-second sermon: “While men are distracted by the many cares of life, their religious hearts are necessarily defiled by the dust of the world”; and 3) the need to prepare ourselves spiritually for the celebration of Easter — for the renewal of our baptismal vows, and for Easter Communion.

According the Didache, a second-century document that is an important record of early Christian beliefs and practices, Christians were to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year. Emphasis on seasonal fasting became more pronounced in the second and third centuries when a more strict fast was observed from Good Friday until Easter. Eventually this shorter fast developed into the forty-day fast.

In 1099, Pope Urban II called the first day of Lent Feria quarta cinerum or Ash Wednesday. During the early centuries of the Church only persons who had committed grave sins received ashes and were asked to do public penance, which usually lasted until Holy Thursday when they were reconciled to the Church through confession and the reception of Holy Communion. As early as the fourth century, the custom was to “quarantine” (from the Latin word for “forty”) or separate the penitents from the rest of the community during the forty days of Lent. Ashes were a sign of this separation. The penitential quarantine applied to poor and rich alike.

Fasting and Penance Today

 “Penance is not just an effort, a weight, but it is also a joy,” Pope John Paul II said in the same message quoted above.

Sometimes it is a great joy of the human spirit, a delight that other sources cannot bring forth. Contemporary man seems to have lost, to some extent, the flavor of this joy. He has also lost the deep sense of that spiritual effort which makes it possible to find oneself again in the whole truth of one’s interior being. Our civilization — especially in the West — closely connected as it is with the development of science and technology, catches a glimpse of the need for intellectual and physical effort. But he has lost the sense of the effort of the spirit, the fruit of which is man seen in his inner self. The whole period of Lent — since it is a preparation for Easter — is a systematic call to this joy that comes from the effort of patiently finding oneself again. Let no one be afraid to undertake this effort.


Lent is an “itinerary of intense spiritual training,” Pope Benedict XVI said in his Lenten message of 2009, and noted that fasting is particularly important in our “culture characterized by the search for material well-being.” He stressed that “the faithful practice of fasting contributes, moreover, to conferring unity to the whole person, body and soul, helping to avoid sin and grow in intimacy with the Lord”; and he says that fasting provides “a spiritual arm to do battle against every possible disordered attachment to ourselves.”


The Code of Canon Law (§§1249-1253) states that all Fridays throughout the year and in the time of Lent are penitential days for the entire Church. Although fasting usually refers to any practice of restricting food, there is a distinction, in the Church, between fasting (limiting food to one full meal a day, with two smaller meals allowed) and abstinence (abstaining from eating meat).

Abstinence from meat on Fridays as the universal form of penance on all Fridays is no longer mandatory, since Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution on Penance, Paenitemini (February 17, 1966. online:

Even if we choose another way of observing the Church’s requirement for acts of penance on Fridays, we are not to neglect this obligation.

Since the change in the abstinence rules, some people have become confused about the requirement to observe penitential days. As a result, the discipline of fasting (or abstaining from meat) or any form of regular penance has all but disappeared. Confession, or the Sacrament of Penance (or Reconciliation) has sharply declined, as well.

Both fast and abstinence are required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. For the record, rules of the Church in the United States about fasting and abstinence have been in effect since November 1966:

Catholics in the United States are obliged to abstain from the eating of meat on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays during the season of Lent. They are also obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday. Self-imposed observance of fasting on all weekdays of Lent is strongly recommended. Abstinence from flesh meat on all Fridays of the year [excluding solemnities like Christmas which may fall on Friday] is especially recommended to individuals and to the Catholic community as a whole.

(US bishops’ document November 18, 1966, Canon Law Digest [CLD] 6, 679-684) 

(For more documentation, see “Fast and Abstinence”:

Self-discipline and self-denial 

Fasting and abstinence foster self-discipline, self-denial, and other beneficial spiritual exercises; both are strongly encouraged as voluntary practices at any time of the year. But it will be the responsibility of families, as the “domestic Church,” to promote this spiritually energizing practice, not only during the required Lenten days, but at other times as well. To fast willingly, in reparation for our own sins and for others, can transform not only our own lives, but affect the life and vitality of the larger community.

As Pope Leo I stressed in the fifth century, the purpose of fasting is to foster pure, holy, and spiritual activity. It is an act of solidarity that joins us to Christ — an act of self-donation in imitation of His total self-sacrifice. Fasting can heighten our understanding of Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, and of our total dependence on His love and mercy.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently encouraged reviving the tradition of penitential fasting on all Fridays. In his address to the bishops at their November 2012 meeting, Cardinal Dolan said:

The work of our Conference during the coming year includes reflections on re-embracing Friday as a particular day of penance, including the possible re-institution of abstinence on all Fridays of the year, not just during Lent. Our pastoral plan offers numerous resources for catechesis on the Sacrament of Penance, and the manifold graces that come to us from the frequent use of confession. Next June we will gather in a special assembly as brother bishops to pray and reflect on the mission entrusted to us by the Church, including our witness to personal conversion in Jesus Christ, and so to the New Evangelization.

Cardinal Dolan also focused on the need for penance — for confession. “The Sacrament of Reconciliation evangelizes the evangelizers,” he said, “as it brings us sacramentally into contact with Jesus, who calls us to conversion of heart, and allows us to answer His invitation to repentance — a repentance from within that can then transform the world without.”

Confession is an essential aspect of conversion, he emphasized: “as we ‘come and go’ in response to the invitation of Jesus, we begin with the Sacrament of Penance.  This is the sacrament of the New Evangelization.”

Farewell to Alleluia and Gloria

During the penitential seasons of the Church, the Gloria and the Alleluia are not said or sung. The Gloria is sung only at the Mass on Holy Thursday, usually with great ceremony, organ and sometimes trumpets, and often with the ringing of bells.  After the singing of the Gloria, musical instruments are to be silent until the Alleluia at the Easter Vigil. (Catholic families might imitate this solemn silence by not playing instrumental music in their homes at this time.)

In the Middle Ages and throughout the sixteenth century, the burying of the Alleluia was a solemn ritual on Septuagesima Sunday (the seventh Sunday before Easter).  A procession of children carrying a wooden plaque bearing the word Alleluia laid it at the feet of the statue of the Blessed Virgin, covering it with a purple cloth. It remained there until Easter at the Gospel procession, when the plaque was carried as the priest intoned the three Alleluias before the Easter Gospel. In Paris, a straw figure inscribed with the word was carried out of the choir at the end of the service and burned in the churchyard.

Although the practice of literally removing the Alleluia from the church has mostly disappeared, even today in some parish celebrations of the Easter Vigil an Alleluia card is carried in procession and placed in front of the altar during the singing of the first Alleluias before the Gospel for Easter.

Lenten Observances in Families

Lent is a time for each of us to increase our knowledge of the “faith that is in us” in order that we can fulfill our vocation as Christians to extend this rich blessing of faith to others. We accomplish personal renewal and revitalization of our faith through penance, prayer, and instruction.


The value of self-denial must be learned early in a person’s life. Lent provides an excellent opportunity to teach our children the necessity of self-denial in our permissive society.

The whole family will observe the Lenten fast according to the Church. Fasting means restricting the food we eat, and also the size and number of meals. Abstinence means abstaining from eating meat.

Catholics abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday as well as on all Fridays during Lent. The strict fast for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday means that we will eat only one main meal on that day, with the other two being very light (and no snacking).

A spirit of fasting can include limiting such activities as television watching, internet surfing, playing video games, shopping, and going out with friends. The entire family could choose main “give-ups” that all will observe (for example, desserts or a favorite TV show). Each child can select additional things to “fast” from during Lent — maybe a video game, or favorite candy. (No fair giving up homework or not hitting your sister!)

There are special foods for Lent. Hot cross buns are traditionally eaten on Good Friday, for example.

A food that symbolizes prayer and fasting is the pretzel (from the Latin word bracellæ, “arms.”) It is a traditional Lenten bread of very ancient origin. Early Christians made the bread from flour, salt, and water only, shaping it to represent the folded arms in prayer, just as they are made to this day. The German tribes who invaded Rome called the bracellæ brezel or prezel. Pretzels are traditionally eaten throughout Lent, and in some places are especially associated with Saint Joseph’s Day (March 19), which usually falls within Lent.

A Continual Feast by Evelyn Birge Vitz is an interesting recipe book featuring foods associated with Christian holidays; it is published by Ignatius Press.


Giving gifts to others can be an expression of sharing God’s love — and is particularly appropriate during Lent. In addition to making a donation to a worthy charity, we can give away clothing or possessions to those in need, or we can give time to the Lord by volunteering our services. We should give sacrificially — not just from our excess.  It would be good to involve young children in this special kind of giving — maybe they could be encouraged to give a toy they especially like to a charity for children.


The Year of Faith is an ideal time for every believing Catholic to resolve to receive the Sacrament of Penance — confession — regularly. Though this sacrament has been neglected, even by many faithful Catholics, we should commit ourselves to a personal revival of the practice of going to confession regularly. If there are children in the family, it is important that they receive a good example from the adults. During Lent, make a point of going to confession, and taking the young people in your household with you.

* See Confession – Sacrament of Reconciliation, Penance:

* Act of Contrition prayer card -

Special prayers and devotions

Lent is an appropriate time to begin to establish some family prayer traditions — beginning with our attending church on Ash Wednesday, to receive the cross of ashes on our foreheads.

•    The family can say together the following prayer for Ash Wednesday:

Heavenly Father, Let us enter the season of Lent in the spirit of joy giving ourselves to spiritual strife, cleansing our soul and body, controlling our passions, as we limit our food, living on the virtues of the Holy Spirit;

Let us persevere in our longing for Christ so as to be worthy to behold His most solemn Passion and the most holy Passover, rejoicing with spiritual joy. Amen

•   On Ash Wednesday, children could make an Alleluia card or banner to be “buried” during Lent, and displayed prominently in your home during the Easter season. This could be made of gold paper and decorated with ribbons or flowers, as elaborately as they like. The Alleluia would reappear on Easter morning with their Easter baskets.

•  Whenever possible go to daily Mass during Lent, and pray more often — alone or with family members.

•  Make a point of taking school-age (and older) children to Eucharistic Adoration. If your parish does not have Eucharistic Adoration, consider asking your pastor about starting it, and volunteer to help organize it.  The Holy Eucharist: Eucharist Adoration – Benediction – Exposition, a booklet published by Adoremus, is a very helpful resource for personal or parish use (

•  Initiate a practice of saying the Angelus at family meals. You can print copies of the Angelus from our website (, or order enough Angelus prayer cards from WFF for your whole family (call 314-863-8385 or e-mail [email protected]).

•  An ancient prayer that reminds us of the multifaceted nature of penance is the following, said by the Eastern Church during the Lenten fast. Your family might say this together after the evening meal, or before bedtime:

O Lord and Ruler of Life,

take from me the spirit of idleness, despair, cupidity, and empty talking.

Yea, O Lord grant that I may see my own sins and not judge my brother.

For thou art blessed forever and ever. Amen.

(If you use this prayer with children, you might explain that “cupidity” is greed for wealth or power, not some little winged being from a Valentine!)

•  Read passages in Scripture that help to explain the meaning of fasting and of penance in our lives. Here are two:

Joel 2:12-14a [RSV-CE]

“Yet even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”

Return to the LORD, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…

Matthew 6:1-5,16-18,21 [RSV-CE]

[Jesus said] “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them, for they you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus when you give alms, sound not a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do … that they may be praised by men.… But when you give alms, do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret… And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites for they stand and pray in the synagogue and at the street corners that they may be seen by men…

“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly I say they have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face that your fasting may not be seen by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret, will reward you.… For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

For Study and Reflection

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” 

Lent is a particularly appropriate time for families (as well as individuals) to develop a Lenten reading program. Reading can replace some of the television shows we’ve given up for Lent. Also, reading aloud from the Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or from a Catholic classic every evening can be a way of fostering family conversation about the Catholic faith. This can bear so much good fruit that it is worth the effort to organize it. We suggest picking one evening a week for this — Wednesdays, for example.

Maria von Trapp suggests that “every year we should divide our reading into three parts: something for the mind, something for the heart, something for the soul.” We cannot regard mind, heart, and soul as really separate, of course.

The Holy Scripture fills all these categories. For example, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Book of Wisdom, and the Old Testament books of Law and History might be “for the mind”; Psalms, Job, and Song of Songs “for the heart”; and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and other Old Testament prophets and the entire New Testament “for the soul.”

Following are a few other suggestions for each category:

Something for the mind

— Spend time with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It would be a very good thing if every family member who has been confirmed had a personal copy — perhaps the “YouCat” for adolescents, which is a special version for youth. (The complete Catechism is accessible on the Vatican website:

—   Read Pope Benedict’s Spirit of the Liturgy. Or a Catholic classic such as G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, François Mauriac’s Holy Thursday, Pascal’s Pensées, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Prayer, Henri de Lubac’s Motherhood of the Church, or a work of Edith Stein (Saint Theresa Benedicta of the Cross) or Blessed John Cardinal Newman 

— Study Blessed Pope John Paul II’s important encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). You may want to use WFF’s study guide for this very timely encyclical (

Something for the heart

Pope Benedict’s Sacramentum Caritatis (The Sacrament of Charity) or Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love) would be a good place to start. (Both are accessible on our website: &

—   Learn more about courageous Christians of the past — the saints — including the patron saints of family members. Many pages on the Liturgical Calendar on the Women for Faith & Family site ( can be useful for readings of the day, background, and suggestions for family observance.

—  Listen to music and study art works that are part of our rich Catholic heritage.

Something for the soul

—   Recite the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) or memorize a devotion or classic Catholic prayer, perhaps one of those found in the Prayers and Devotions section of the WFF website –

— Say the Rosary daily. If possible, say it together as a family at least once a week. If there are young children in your household, Lent is an ideal time to begin to teach them to say the “Hail Mary” as part of their bedtime prayers, along with the “Our Father.” All the Rosary prayers are on our website:

—   Contemplate the Stations of the Cross. Suggestions for this devotion (including praying the stations at home) are on our website: Sublime meditations on each station, by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, were featured at the 2005 Way of the Cross observance in the Colosseum; they are accessible on the Vatican website:

—   Study contemporary spiritual writings such as Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth books (three volumes), his Fathers of the Church, or Pope John Paul II’s The Light of Christ, Sign of Contradiction, or The Way of Christ.

—  Read works of great spiritual writers of the past such as the Confessions of Saint Augustine, Imitation of Christ by Thomas á Kempis, and The Way of Perfection by Saint Teresa of Ávila.

In his April 2011 message concluding a series of Wednesday audiences on the lives of the saints, Pope Benedict succinctly summarized the response of each Christian believer to God’s universal call to holiness:

Holiness is the fullness of the Christian life, a life in Christ; it consists in our being united to Christ, making our own His thoughts and actions, and conforming our lives to His. As such, it is chiefly the work of the Holy Spirit who is poured forth into our hearts through Baptism, making us sharers in the paschal mystery and enabling us to live a new life in union with the Risen Christ.

Christian holiness is nothing other than the virtue of charity lived to its fullest. In the pursuit of holiness, we allow the seed of God’s life and love to be cultivated by hearing His word and putting it into practice, by prayer and the celebration of the sacraments, by sacrifice and service of our brothers and sisters.

The lives of the saints encourage us along this great path leading to the fullness of eternal life. By their prayers, and the grace of the Holy Spirit, may each of us live fully our Christian vocation and thus become a stone in that great mosaic of holiness which God is creating in history, so that the glory shining on the face of Christ may be seen in all its splendor.

This Lent, in this Year of Faith, may we all aspire to become part of that “great mosaic of holiness.”

Access many resources for the Lenten Season in the special section on the WFF website:

Also see Lent I - Pre-Lent and Ash Wednesday

Passiontide and Holy Week | Holy Thursday | Passover Seder | Stations of the Cross | Good Friday | Holy Saturday and Easter Vigil | Easter Day and Easter Week

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