With Lent approaching once more, we thought it might be a good time to revisit and respond some of the questions that come up every year: What is Lent? Why do we observe it? What is penance, exactly? And, perhaps most importantly for some, are Sundays included? With these questions in mind, we’ve put together this one-stop guide with some useful pointers on how we might enter more fully into this sometimes challenging but always gracious season.

What is Lent?

Lent is a season of prayer, fasting and almsgiving that begins with Ash Wednesday and concludes at sundown on Holy Thursday. At this point, the Easter Triduum begins and Catholics enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s Passion before Easter.

Although penance is a calling of every Catholic throughout his or her life, Lent is a season specially marked out for the Church to be ‘united among themselves by common observance’ of it (Code of Canon Law, §1249). It is a way of growing in the faith together.

What is penance?

Although the term penance might sounds strange to modern ears, and perhaps hold some negative connotations, you might be surprised to learn that penance in the Catholic tradition is considered a virtue, one we’re invited to live in our whole lives, not just in the sacrament of Reconciliation.

What this means is that penance is something that, when practised enough, becomes a habit, something that is second nature to us.

According to St Thomas Aquinas, penance is a species of justice and has two elements: contrition for sin and the making amends for sin.

Simple justice dictates that if we steal something, we should return it; if somebody injures themselves because of us, we should compensate them in some way; if we break something, we should fix it. Seen in this way, justice is about healing what’s broken.

Penance is like this for our relationship with God: it’s about turning ourselves back to God when we might have turned away. It’s a healing process, which is why prayer, even contemplative prayer, is a form of penance: prayer, by its nature, turns us back to God.

Lent, as a penitential season, is the time for us to turn radically back to God; to experience true conversion and repentance. This conversion, however, is primarily the work of grace, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (§1432). Lent should not be approached simply as a season of self-denial, then, but welcomed as a season of grace, in which our hearts can be softened.

Is Lent just about ‘giving something up’?

No. As you’ve probably caught on by now, giving something up—or fasting—is only one of three things we should be focussing on throughout Lent. The other two, prayer and almsgiving, are very much about ‘taking something up’.

What are our Lenten obligations?

In Australia and New Zealand, the obligations for Lent are:

  • Catholics aged 18–59 should fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday
  • Catholics aged 14 and older should abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday
  • Catholics aged 14 and over should abstain from meat on every Friday of the year, including Lent, or substitute this with another form of penance, either in prayer, fasting or almsgiving.

Taking up some form of voluntary penance throughout the season of Lent is also expected.

What is the difference between fasting and abstinence?

On a day of fasting, Catholics are supposed to have one normal-sized meal and two ‘snacks’ (or ‘smaller meals’), which cannot, put together, equal a full meal.

On a day of abstinence, Christians are asked to abstain from meat (although seafood is allowed).

Why do we have obligations?

According to the Catechism, obligations like this are there to serve the moral and spiritual life of the faithful. The purpose is to make plain ‘the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbour’ (CCC, §2041)—essentially, they are the lowest bar we have to meet to grow in the spiritual life.

Are Sundays included in Lent?

The famous question. The short answer is: Yes, Sundays are included in Lent.

Why? The Code of Canon Law prescribes the whole of ‘the season of Lent’ (with no exceptions) as a period of daily penance (Can. 1250).

However, in Australia and New Zealand, ‘the law of the common practice of penance’ (such as on Fridays and during the Lenten season) is fulfilled by doing any one of three things: a form of prayer, fasting or almsgiving. So if you were get up to pray on Sunday morning and you relaxed one of your food restrictions, you would still have fulfilled the penitential expectation of the season. Since penances undertaken outside of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are voluntary anyway, you could relax one of them and still meet the obligations of the season. Ultimately this is a matter of individual conscience.

Should Lent be harsher?

You might sometimes hear people speak nostalgically about how strict Lent used to be, harking back to a time when it was comparable to, if not harder than, the Islamic season of Ramadan. The point of these reminiscences is often to lament what are thought to be falling standards when it comes to things like prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

What sometimes is missed in these conversations, though, is that the strictness of a practice does not determine its value, nor does it determine the holiness of the person doing it. In his famous hymn to love, St Paul takes a radical position, stating that love is what determines the value of an action. Even if we were to perform the most heroic act of all—martyrdom—it would be a waste if it were not an act of love (1 Corinthians 13:3).

St Thérèse of Lisieux would take up this idea as her famous ‘little way’. And as the Catechism explains, the aim of penance is to foster, and be an expression of, an interior ‘conversion of heart’ (CCC, §1430). Without this interior transformation, penance is ‘sterile and false’.

The focus in Lent, then—as with every other time of the year—should be on the love with which we do things, not the amount or intensity of the things we do.

Where can I find resources to help me this Lent?

As always, the Summit Online is a good place to find out more about the Church’s seasons, feasts and liturgy. There are a range of different resources there to guide you through this grace-filled season, whether you’re an individual, a group or a family.