Bishop's Interview: Lenten promises are challenging, not burdensome
Editor: Bishop, the season of Lent began with Ash Wednesday on March 5. What does this season mean to us as Catholics?
Bishop Vásquez: The season of Lent is a time of grace and conversion. It is based upon Jesus’ own encounter with evil and confrontation with the devil in the desert. Ash Wednesday initiates 40 days of preparation to celebrate the mystery of the Resurrection of Our Lord, which we celebrate on Easter Sunday. For us as Catholics, Lent is a time of prayer, reflection and charitable works. This season is a calling for us to live out our Catholic faith more deeply, and specifically it is a time to prepare ourselves to experience the love of the Risen Lord.
Editor: There are three pillars of Lent. Will you explain them for us?
Bishop Vásquez: The three pillars of Lent are mentioned on the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus tells us three things that we are encouraged to do, not only for his time –– he was telling people that a good Jew would do this –– but also for us as Catholics today. Those three pillars are fasting, prayer and almsgiving. They are the things that we need to concentrate on during this season of Lent.
The first pillar is fasting. Jesus tells us very clearly in that Gospel reading to be careful not to put on a show for people. “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden.” We don’t fast for others. We fast because God is asking us to fast and we are doing it for God. Jesus tells us very carefully that when we fast we are to not act like the hypocrites. We are to comb our hair, wash our face and groom ourselves properly, so that only God knows we are fasting.
In a similar way, Jesus talks about prayer in that Gospel reading. When we pray, we are not to be hypocrites or to show off to everybody that we are praying. “But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret,” Jesus tells us. Who knows that we are praying? Only God.
Also, Jesus discusses almsgiving, which involves giving to the poor and taking care of the needy. “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” He tells us that there is no need to tell others that we are taking care of the poor and needy, only God needs to know that we helping others.
Jesus is telling us that our concentration is to be on God. These three active spiritual practices of the church are to help us grow in holiness. They are a challenge to all of us because as humans we tend to put ourselves at the center of the world. These practices the Jesus is referring to move us to put God at the center, not ourselves.
Often we start something and are unable to fulfill it or maybe we set our goals too high and are unable to meet them. For example, take the challenge to pray more. I encourage people to be practical in their expectations of themselves. If we want to pray more, then let’s start by praying 5 minutes more a day. Don’t start with praying an hour more a day (unless you are already doing it) because for many that is just not possible. Rather I encourage everyone to make their Lenten promises achievable. It may be as simple as learning to pray the rosary or reading a passage of Scripture every day, maybe just a few lines –– not a whole chapter. Just take a few lines of Scripture and pray with them.
Or if I want to help the poor, then how can I do that in a simple, yet helpful way? We have wonderful ways to help people through Catholic Charities of Central Texas and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. I encourage people to reach out to Catholic organizations to see how they can help. Another way to help would be to clean out closets and give away clothes that we don’t wear –– give them to the poor. I also encourage people to visit those who are in the hospital, or stop to say hello to someone who may be ill or confined to their home. These are very practical things that are achievable and they are not demanding on us.
In a very distinct way, I think Jesus is asking us not to fast, pray or give alms to the point that they burdensome. These three pillars should facilitate our growth in holiness and in our ability to see the needs of our brothers and sisters and respond to them.
Editor: What are the Catholic Church’s teachings or requests of us as far as fasting and abstinence are concerned during Lent?
Bishop Vásquez: During Lent we have some basic guidelines that all Catholics are to do. On Ash Wednesday and on Fridays during Lent, all Catholics are asked to abstain from eating meat. This is a Lenten norm that is given to us so that we can experience in a small way the supreme sacrifice that Jesus gave for us –– dying on the cross. Abstaining from meat is a small way for us to deny ourselves; it is a sign that we are giving something up because God gave us his son, Jesus Christ, who gave himself completely and totally for us, to save us from sin.
As Catholics, we are called to fast on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday. That doesn’t mean that those are the only days that we can fast but those are the two days on which the church asks us to unite as one body by offering up this simple practice. The call to fast means abstaining from meat and cutting back on our food intake for the day. This could mean eating smaller meals, or it could mean eating one large meal for the day, or it could mean eating just two small meals for the day. The purpose is not to get caught up in measuring our portions; it is meant to help us focus on the great love that God has for us and our love for him.
Editor: Do you have a particular spiritual practice that you would like to share with us?
Bishop Vásquez: This Lent I hope to do more spiritual reading. Hopefully, this will lead me to reflect more deeply on the daily Scriptures or the Office of Readings that are given to us by the church. Of course, I would like to do a little more praying as well. And there are a few things that I need to do less of, such as spending too much time on the Internet. Perhaps instead I will try to write more letters or call my family members more often. I need to examine the activities that distract me from God, and work on doing things that lead me closer to him. I encourage all of us to find ways that we can be closer to Our Heavenly Father this Lent.
Editor: What is your prayer for all of us as we move through Lent and closer to the celebration of the Resurrection?
Bishop Vásquez: My prayer for us, brothers and sisters, is that we will truly experience the grace of God during this season of Lent. May each of us experience a deeply profound conversion of heart, mind and soul, so that we will be more focused upon loving God and loving our neighbor and come to joyfully celebrate the Resurrection at Easter.