During the Season of Lent, the Church invites the faithful to live, in a more intense manner, some aspects of the Christian life that will lift up the spirit, lead to conversion, and reconnect people with God. Those aspects are prayer, fasting, penance and almsgiving (charity). For members of the worldwide Vincentian Family, the practice of prayer, fasting, penance and almsgiving is something that should be lived throughout the year.
Prayer is most important for Christians and Vincentians. Without prayer, charity is reduced to social activism. Without prayer, believers become spiritually empty and are unable to act as yeast in the dough (Luke 13:21) and equally unable to be salt of the earth and light of the world (Matthew 5:13-14). Prayer renews the spirit, soothes pain and suffering, and draws people closer to God. During this time of pandemic, the invitation to pray is even more urgent, especially for those individuals who have lost friends and loved ones. To have recourse to God, through means of prayer, is the most powerful path for conversion (Matthew 7:7-8).
Penance, through the forgiveness of sin, is intended to bring about reconciliation with God and with one’s brothers and sisters. As stated in the precepts of the Church, men and women ought to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation (confession) at least once a year … and the season of Lent is a most appropriate time to participate in this sacrament. A good examination of conscience heightens repentance and participation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is truly freeing. To live in harmony with God through the practice of penance is a fundamental disposition in order to grow in virtue (Judith 8:14). Members of the Vincentian Family who do not participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, slowly become lax in the practice of their faith and distance themselves from all that is holy.
In these days of deep uncertainty about the future, let us keep in mind the Lord’s word to his Servant, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you” (Is 43:1). In our charity, may we speak words of reassurance and help others to realize that God loves them as sons and daughters.
Fasting (which implies mortification, one of the characteristics virtues of all Vincentians) is another practice that highlights the smallness of Christians when compared with the divine greatness. Fasting, which in accord with the Christian tradition is practiced by many people on every Friday throughout the year, is a manner in which one is able to grow in holiness (and this is achieved through humility and detachment from material things). In his Lenten Message, Pope Francis teaches us that fasting is also an experience of poverty and, therefore, those who fast become poor with those who are poor. Furthermore, fasting reinforces the solidarity nature of Lent (Isaiah 58:3).
Finally, the practice of almsgiving (charity) is the seal of every Vincentian. Indeed, the members of the Vincentian Family are continually challenged to embrace and affirm those individuals who are vulnerable and suffer any form of poverty. They are further challenged to treat people equally and with respect, helping men and women to overcome the transitory difficulties of this life (not only material and financial difficulties but also moral and spiritual difficulties [1 Corinthians 13:13]). In his Lenten Message, Pope Francis states: Love is a leap of the heart; it brings us out of ourselves and creates bonds of sharing and communion.
Because of the world crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic, this year Lent will be lived with certain adaptations … but the basic principles of this season of Lent must not be forgotten. Indeed, we must be creative in order to live Lent in accord with the present health restrictions. Pope Francis, in his Lenten Message, teaches: In these days of deep uncertainty about the future, let us keep in mind the Lord’s word to his Servant, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you” (Isaiah 43:1). In our charity, may we speak words of reassurance and help others to realize that God loves them as sons and daughters.
In light of all that has been stated, we can affirm that the members of the worldwide Vincentian Family live in a continual state of Lent. The highlighted characteristics are inseparable from the Vincentian manner of living. Indeed, our witness of life and our search for holiness will serve as an example for many whom we will encounter. May you all have a fruitful Lent.
Renato Lima de Oliveira
16th General President of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul