By Donal Anthony Foley, World Apostolate of Fatima, February 27, 2019
Next week will see Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent and the 40-day period of preparation for Easter and the Resurrection of Christ. Lent gets its name from the old English word lencten, which means Spring, the season in which it occurs from medieval times.
However, the 40-day period of penance really comes from Scripture, namely the 40-day fast undertaken by Christ before He began his public ministry (Mt 4:1-2). It is also related to the 40 days and nights Moses fasted on Mount Sinai before he received the 10 Commandments (Ex 34:28) as well as the 40-days and nights journey and fasting undertaken by the prophet Elijah when he went to Mount Horeb (1 Kg 18:8). Interestingly, it is Moses and Elijah who appear with Christ at His Transfiguration, and whom He spoke with about His suffering and death (Lk 9:31)
In the past, the Lenten fast was quite severe and often meant only one meal a day, usually taken in the evening. Later, this was relaxed to allow a daytime meal and a smaller evening repast. But since Vatican II, the only required fast days for adults are now Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
We can do more than that voluntarily – and we should – as it would seem to fit in with the spirit of Lent as it has been traditionally understood by the Church. In the Gospels, Christ clearly expected to His followers to undergo periods of fasting, telling us to do so in secret so that only the Father knows. Jesus also emphasized the importance of prayer and almsgiving, along with fasting, as ways of atoning for sin and growing closer to God.
Fatima reminds us that God’s justice demands our sacrifice
Fasting plays a definite part in the message of Fatima, too. On one occasion, Jacinta wondered how they could make sacrifices for sinners and Francisco suggested giving up their lunch to the sheep. Later, Jacinta suggested they give their lunch to some poor children “for the conversion of sinners”, which was also a form of almsgiving. When the seers became hungry later that afternoon, they ended up eating bitter acorns. On other occasions, they would eat pine nuts, berries or mushrooms. The children also went without water, sometimes the whole day, in the height of the Portuguese summer.
The July apparition and the third part of the Secret are the starkest in their call for sacrifice. The three children saw “an Angel with a flaming sword in his left hand; flashing, it gave out flames that looked as though they would set the world on fire… pointing to the earth with his right hand, the Angel cried out in a loud voice: ‘Penance, Penance, Penance!’”
We cannot ignore this call, but we are not necessarily being asked by Our Lady to do the harsh penances undertaken by the children, particularly Jacinta. In fact, Lucia related that Jacinta had been given a special grace from God to desire this form of penance. She was often brought to tears by the pain of the old rope that she and the others wore around their waists as a form of penance, yet she insisted on wearing it. Then Our Lady told them during the September apparition, “God is pleased with your sacrifices, but He does not want you to sleep with the rope on; only wear it during the day.”
Our Lord later revealed to Lucia what form of sacrifice and penance He desired. She wrote to her superior: “The good Lord … bitterly and painfully complains about the extremely limited number of souls in grace who are willing to resign themselves to what is required of them in observance of His Law. This is now the penance that our good Lord asks: The sacrifice that all people have to impose on themselves is to lead a life of righteousness in the observance of His Law, and to do this to make clear the way for souls, because many judge the meaning of the word penance in great austerity, they do not feel the strength and pleasure to do it and are discouraged in a life of weakness and sin.Our Lord told me: ‘The sacrifice of each one required is the fulfilment of their own duty and observance of My Law; it is penance that is now demanded and asked.’” (Pathway, pp 231-232).
In other words, recognize the sacrifices required of your duties in life, offer them up, and most importantly, observe all that God has commanded us. It can be very penitential in our modern day to stand for the truth of God’s revelation, but it is necessary for the sake of leading souls on the right path.
Lent is approaching, and we can resolve to undertake some form of voluntary penance with a focus on fasting and abstinence. This could mean eating a bit less each day, or cutting out extras and “luxuries” such as jam or marmalade, or chocolate and cakes. As St. Therese of Lisieux showed in her Little Way, it is not necessary to make big sacrifices in order to please God, but rather to do small things in a spirit of love.
But we should not forget that it is also important to practice an interior type of penance, that is to be more charitable, to help people and show mercy.
In sum, the very first thing that Jesus is recorded as saying in the Gospels, after he returned from the wilderness and his 40-days fast: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” 2