“Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great
devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and
it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided
a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy
Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of
notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful
were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to
the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation
was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set
forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all
Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning
of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now
kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.
Every year, when we hear the celebrant invite us to observe Lent, I rejoice in these words. The part that has the greatest appeal are the sentences italicized above. They remind us of why we have the season of Lent. We have Lent because of our catechumens, those preparing for baptism, and because of our penitents, those preparing for absolution and return to the fellowship of the Church. Roman Catholics recognize several orders among the faithful. There are the “holy orders,” those of deacon, priest and bishop. There is the order of the faithful. And there are the orders of the catechumen and of the penitent.
The order of the penitent is not spoken of very much these days. That is because there is little recognition of the gravity of “notorious sin” and its ability to be a stumbling block, a scandal. Notorious sins are those that are so blatant as to cause those who might think of becoming Christians to doubt following that Way. Actions that truly cause people to recognize Christians as hypocrites are notorious sins. Sins that can cause those who are members of the church to doubt their faith are notorious sins. The Church realized fairly early that, while we all sin, not every sin is grave enough to cause such hindrances. Only the most grievous sins, the “mortal sins,” the “notorious sins” do that. Through such actions one does great harm to the Body of Christ. Those would be things like murder (is abortion is in this category?), adultery, grand theft, blasphemy and a host of others.
Is there anyway back into the fold? Yes. One must recognize and admit to one’s sin. Through self examination one answers the question of what have I done (or not done) that has separated me from the Church? What have I done or not done that scandalizes others? What must I do to restore my life in Christ, i.e. what is my penance? The sin was done in public therefore the penance is done in public. A bishop or priest must recognize one’s repentance and then grant absolution in the name of Christ. Lent is the period of repentance. In recognizing that everyone sins, we have generalized the notion of sin and done away with the recognition of notorious sins.
But I am getting too far afield. What I really want to point out is that repentance involves stages, just like those for the catechumen. The journey is one of recognition and admittance of one’s sin, reformation through penance, and a celebration of absolution and re-entry into the fellowship of the Church. Lent and Holy Saturday are the occasions for the last two stages of this journey.
Catechumens take a similar journey. They recognize that there is something missing in their lives. Together with guides, they inquire what that might be. They enter the order of the catechumenate, i.e. they enter the Church, and learn what following the Way of Christ involves. During Lent the are “prepared for Holy Baptism.” Lent and Easter are the last two seasons of this journey.
It is true that the entire order of the faithful join the catechumens and penitents in this journey. The invitation to Lent recognizes this. “Thereby, the whole congregation [is] put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.”
I enjoy this invitation because it reminds us of the origins of Lent. It can also lead us to reflect on what generalizing the need for Lent does with the journey for those seeking baptism and those seeking forgiveness. The restoration of the catechumenate is bringing us to a renewed recognition of the centrality of Baptism in our Christian lives. How we observe Lent reflects the importance we place on celebration of Baptism. For centuries, Lent was seen as the time for the faithful to prepare for Easter through repentance of their sins. We lost recognition of the order of catechumens. We lost recognition of catechumens’ ministry to us by leading us in that preparation. The public rites of healing (the scrutinies) that occur during Lent help all of us remain aware that we are preparing to renew our baptismal covenant.
The notion of the need for repentance from notorious sins was diluted in the recognition that we all sin. Everyone was expected to “go to confession” during Lent. The recognition of the order of the penitent remains lost to us. We have lost recognition that there are notorious sins, those that seriously damage both the Body of Christ and the sinner.
In recognizing that God is all loving and all forgiving, it is easy to forget that Divine infinite love and forgiveness calls for a response from us. We need to love in return. Helping those seeking God to realize Infinite Love through Baptism is one way. We need to forgive in return. Helping those seeking to recognize Infinite Forgiveness is also a way. Both bring us all together in Lent. The invitation to a holy Lent is the invitation to the journey of preparation and repentance.