PUNXSUTAWNEY — Wednesday marked the beginning of the Lenten season for Roman Catholics around the world.
For the next six weeks, Msgr. Joseph Riccardo, of the Ss. Cosmas & Damian parish, is asking his parishioners and all Catholics to remove the growing number of distractions that usually inhibit a person of faith from making a full commitment to the Lenten season.
“It’s a hectic world, and we’re distracted by many things,” he said. “We have a lot of responsibilities and commitments, and unfortunately, that also serves as a distraction to the practice of our faith.”
Forty years ago, Riccardo’s parents considered the practice of their faith a top priority.
However, over his 36-year career in the priesthood, Riccardo has witnessed a decrease in the number of Roman Catholics attending traditional Lenten devotions such as the Stations of the Cross, a devotion that is held every Friday evening during Lent and recognizes the brief, but intense, period of time when Jesus was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate, then moved through the City of Jerusalem to Mount Calvary.
But the first step in the right direction for contemporary society is recognizing that the season of Lent is a sacred time of reflection and repentance, he said.
“Lent prepares us for a more deep involvement in the celebration of the Resurrection — Easter is the Resurrection,” Riccardo said. “Easter is the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord, and our faith challenges us to become more involved in that celebration.”
And the season of Lent is the aid the Roman Catholic Church presents to those who are looking for a deep involvement in the Easter celebration.
Lent is similar to the Advent — the preparation before Christmas — but prepares Catholics for the primary events of their faith.
Lent leads up to Holy Week — specifically, the Triduum, which is the actual feast of salvation — the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ — and is celebrated in four services: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday.
Many Catholics see the six weeks of Lent as the way to prepare for Holy Week, and it all begins Ash Wednesday.
According to Riccardo, the practice comes from the Old Testament, in which people would show a sign of repentance or a sign of grief by clothing themselves in sack cloths and covering their heads in ashes.
But now, Catholics show a sign of repentance by wearing a cross of ashes provided by a priest on their foreheads.
“It’s an outward sign of our commitment to involve ourselves in the Lenten practices and Lent itself,” he said. “This is not magic or hocus-pocus — it’s a true sign of our commitment in truth and integrity, toward the Lenten season.”
Normally, Catholics are asked to wear their ashes throughout the day on Ash Wednesday for others to see their commitment.
“Just coming and getting ashes, just to get ashes, means nothing,” Riccardo said. “It’s just ashes unless our commitment and our dedication is there.”
It’s the commitment to renewing oneself throughout Lent that is most important, Riccardo said, and people use three tools provided by the church, to renew themselves in their faith.
Prayer, fasting (sacrifice), and alms giving (charitable works), are the standard Lenten devotions Roman Catholics use to renew themselves.
The most recognized practice in fasting is meatless Fridays.
Every Friday throughout the year used to signify a meatless Friday, but about 25 years ago, meatless Fridays became a practice specific to Lent.
“It was an attempt by the church to get people at least once a week to enter into a sacrificial mode,” Riccardo said. “Today, people eat as much fish as they do meat, but it’s more symbolic today than it was in the past. But the idea is sacrifice, and it was chosen for Friday to associate itself with the sacrifice on the cross when Jesus died.”
Charitable works is another focus for many Catholics during Lent, but it doesn’t always have to be about contributing financially to a cause, Riccardo said.
“Charitable works can also incorporate the way in which we treat one another within our own family, or the extended family, or the neighborhood, or the community in which we live,” he said. “Showing kindness to other people is a charitable work. Taking your time and giving it someone else is a charitable work, and that is equally as important as throwing the dollar bill at somebody.”
Every year, SS.C.D. holds a rice bowl collection, a fund-raiser where the church asks its parishioners to collect loose change during the Lenten season. The money is then given to a diocesan agency that uses the money for the poor.
Fish frys are also popular fund-raising events, which have been a part of the Lenten experience for as long as Riccardo can remember. The income from fish frys goes to the SS.C.D. school, as well as to the St. Vincent De Paul Society, which distributed food to the needy on Saturdays.
Prayer, fasting and charitable works continue throughout the entire Lenten season, which Riccardo refers to a a “call for renewal.”
But the challenge, Riccardo said, is not so much in prayer, fasting and charitable works, but is in acknowledging the need for such a season.
“It’s a period of fasting, penance and alms giving to help us, to realize we’re in need of this, that we fall off the path that we’re supposed to be on,” the Rev. William Laska of the Immaculate Conception parish in Brookville said.
It’s an opportunity for two different kinds of people — those who are committed Christians, who practice their faith regularly, and also for those who have fallen away, to renew themselves in the faith and to open themselves up to “the transforming power of God’s presence,” Riccardo added.
“Lent is a time of renewal,” Riccardo said. “I think in our lives we get caught up with the day-to-day responsibilities and obligations of our lives and our relationships, and naturally, some things take a back burner — one of which, may or may not be your faith. Lent is an opportunity to renew ourselves in our faith and our belief in God.”