Each Lent I think on the common practice among Catholics of selecting our own private sacrifice to observe during this holy season. Mom gives up TV while her teenage son gives up xBox. Little sister gives up chocolate, and Dad gives up red wine.
You can see one problem already: Dad is going to be tempted to spiritual pride since his is the only real sacrifice! (That’s a joke, chocolate lovers.)
As my pastor points out, none of our sacrifices are worth the effort if the intention that drives them is not the correct one. Father Edward Leen, very likely my favorite spiritual writer (I strongly recommend his In the Likeness of Christ), points out that our service to God “consists not in our actions and doings but in the mode of our actions and doings. Our service consists not in what we do, but in the spirit in which we do it.” The secret of life, Fr. Leen declares, is doing all that we do out of love for Jesus Christ.
There is another concern, perhaps, about the practice of each person’s selecting his own private mortification: the practice tends to individualism, an attitude or state of mind for which Americans, especially, need to be on guard.
Although everyone’s choosing his or her own Lenten sacrifice is not as bad as, say, a Catholic university president’s welcoming heretics to the faculty in the name of individual expression, we can see how individualism can lead toward chaos.
The best defense against chaos is unity This word has the same root as universal, which, as any Catholic grammar school child of my father’s generation could tell you, is what “Catholic” means.
When my father was a child, all practicing Catholics observed the same rules for fasting and abstaining throughout Lent. These prescriptions were not inconsiderable (look them up in the front of a 1962 missal), but they were designed to help us conquer the passions that try to take over our hearts and fog our minds. They were given from the top down for those of us—myself, chief among them—who would seek some easier course.
And they were given to all so that in and by their common practice all were more closely united in the Mystical Body of Christ.
A couple of years ago, the American bishops opened discussion concerning a more universal application of Friday abstinence throughout the whole year. In the memory of not a few folks reading this blog, there was a time when Catholics were the curious folks who abstained from meat on all Fridays, not simply those of Lent. Indeed, Catholics once stood so apart from the general culture that their power to influence it was immense: a once-thriving parochial school system and the control that the Legion of Decency exercised on the motion picture industry are two examples.
No age is perfect, and I think it’s fair to say that the martyrs who transformed Rome in Christ would certainly have a thing or two to show pre-conciliar American Catholics about transforming a culture, but I am afraid that Catholics have come so far from unity that a united front seems very unlikely, whether it unites against Islamic terror or the moral decay of our unbelieving age.
More than a century ago, Pope Leo XIII anticipated what many Catholics today seem not to see: the effects of individualism on the Church. Nonetheless, we are really not so far from the age when everyone gave up the same thing for Lent and on the same days.
There are yet places where one can see the uniting effects of common mortifications, customs, and practices. Two communities that are dear to me are the Benedictines of Mary Queen of Apostles near Kansas City and St. Michael’s Abbey of the Norbertine Friars, just up the road from us in Southern California. If you ever are able to spend some time among either community, you will see how a life of common song, mortification, practice, and worship creates a Christian solidarity that very much can stand against the storm of our time as the “sign of contradiction” our Lord charges us to be.
Here at Catholic Answers, we work hard to create an environment of common life. For example, we begin our days with Holy Mass in our chapel, every afternoon we recite the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and on Tuesdays we have exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Periodically we make a retreat together. A common prayer life strengthens our common effort to do the good work of the apostolate.
There is no good reason why all the laity of the Church today cannot enjoy the same unity and solidarity that some communities and apostolates do. A more earnest revival of common Lenten practices would be a first and also a great step in that direction. To that end, we should strive to make the Stations of the Cross at our parishes each Friday, for example, and we should work alongside our fellow Christians in performing works of mercy. And if more common use of the fasting and abstinence practices of just a half century ago made a comeback, Catholic unity and solidarity might very well also.