Bishop's Interview: Lent: Forty days of grace and mercy

Editor: Bishop Ash Wednesday is Feb. 10, which means Lent is very near. What is the significance of these 40 days?
Bishop Vásquez:
The 40 days of Lent are days of grace and blessings because Lent allows us to focus on the central message of Christianity and the person of Jesus Christ. Questions we ask ourselves during Lent include: Who is Jesus? Who is he for me? What do his life, passion, death and resurrection mean? 
Lent is also a time of preparation for the catechumens, those who desire to enter the Catholic Church. They are intensely preparing to receive the Easter sacraments. For we who are already full members of the Catholic Church, Lent is a time of renewal and strengthening of our faith. To do this, Scripture gives us the three practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. 
Editor: What are some good examples that might be outside of the norm for us Catholics?
Bishop Vásquez:
When it comes to prayer, we can ask ourselves how much time do we spend in prayer each day? Do I go to Mass? Do I read Scripture? Prayer is necessary for us to grow in our relationship with God. 
Pope Francis reminds us often of the power of prayer, “Miracles happen. But prayer is needed! Prayer that is courageous, struggling and persevering, not prayer that is a mere formality.” Our Holy Father also reminds us to pray with our families, so perhaps during Lent we could make the effort to sit with our families and pray the Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be or a decade of the rosary. 
Another thing to consider is for whom do we pray? It is easier to pray for our family and friends, but can we pray for people who we don’t get along with –– maybe a co-worker or a relative? Do we pray for our persecutors? Jesus says very clearly to pray for those who persecute us. When we pray for persons who wish us harm, we take the focus off that person and off of ourselves and we focus on God. It amazes me that every time I focus on God and not on myself that life situations go much better. I begin to look at life differently and I try to better understand people. Who are they? What is going on in their lives? What must their families be like? Prayer opens us to new possibilities and we begin to see the world in a new way. 
Fasting is another Lenten practice we need to do. Fasting from food is what we usually think about, but there are other ways that we can fast. What are the things in my life that I need to let go of? Even though they might not be bad in and of themselves, they may hinder us from getting closer to God. Do we spend too much time in front of the television, on the computer, on the phone, texting, e-mailing or scrolling through Facebook? 
We can also fast from negative attitudes or habits, such as being critical or judgmental. The season of Lent is a time of letting go of those distractions that keep us from God. As Jesus entered the desert to be in union with his Father, he experienced hunger and temptation from the devil. He learned to trust in God and nourished himself on God’s word and love. Lent is a good time for us to do this as well.
During Lent we are also encouraged to practice almsgiving or taking care of the poor. The church clearly understands that when we take care of the poor, God looks on us with mercy. Almsgiving can be in the form of money or food or clothes. In a diocese like ours, we have countless homeless people. Can we affirm the homeless so that when we stop at an intersection, we look at the individual and acknowledge that this is a person not a problem. They have dignity and they deserve our time and our prayers –– sometimes we can lose sight of that. There are many ways for us to take care of the poor: spending time with them and acknowledging them. We can also participate and support our Catholic Charities and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. 
These practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving come from Matthew’s Gospel (16-18) on Ash Wednesday. We are called to pray, fast and give alms privately, quietly and discreetly because that is what God wants us to do. “And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you,” Matthew says.
Editor: Because this is the Jubilee Year of Mercy we could also work on practicing some of the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy during Lent. What is the difference between the two?
Bishop Vásquez:
The Corporal Works of Mercy are practical actions to help those in need, such as giving food to the hungry and sharing our extra clothes with the naked. The Spiritual Works of Mercy are also about helping people but with council, advise, correction and listening. Those types of things are important for encouraging people. We must be concerned for the spiritual wellbeing of others. The Corporal Works of Mercy are directly concerned with the exterior needs of an individual and the Spiritual Works of Mercy are primarily concerned with the interior needs of the person. I must admit that the spiritual works can often be more difficult to carry out. It can be hard to correct people or forgive others for past transgressions. However, with God’s grace we can practice the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. 
Editor: What is your prayer for all of us as we begin our Lenten journey?
Bishop Vásquez:
I pray that Lent will be an experience of God’s mercy. During Advent, I had the opportunity of hearing confession in our parishes. I was amazed by the numbers of people taking advantage of the sacrament of reconciliation and it reassured me that people want and need God’s mercy. Therefore, I pray that this Lenten season will be a time to experience a deeper level of God’s mercy so that we become people of hope and invite others to experience God’s mercy as well.