Are you ready for Lent?

Every year it seems that I get my “Lenten stride” about three days before Holy Week. I always regret not doing more, sooner. Here are some resources and answers to Lenten questions to help us start Lent on the right foot:

–Read Pope Benedict XVI’s Message for Lent 2009.

–Read Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini (1966), which governs the penitential discipline of the Church.

–Read the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (now the USCCB), Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence (1966), which applies that universal discipline to the United States and offers recommendations for Lent.

Here are some responses to frequently asked questions regarding Lenten practices (see below)

Who may bless and distribute ashes on Ash Wednesday?

Who may receive ashes on Ash Wednesday?

What are the origins of abstaining from meat on Fridays During Lent?

Is it permitted to remove the holy water from the holy water fonts during Lent?

Do Sundays of Lent have a penitential character?

Faith Facts are concise presentations of Church teachings and disciplines in areas of faith, morals, and liturgy
Lent: Discipline and History Where does the observance of Lent come from?
Daily Penance, Days of Penance What are they, and how do Catholics observe them?
Is There A “Rite” Time? Whether to baptize during Lent
Lenten Traditions Within the Home Lenten Family Activities
Life in the “Fast” Lane Fasting and Abstinence
The Washing of Feet of Holy Thursday Whether only men should be selected

Who may bless and distribute ashes on Ash Wednesday?
Lay people may assist a priest or deacon in distributing ashes, but only a priest or deacon can bless the ashes.

There is an important distinction to be made between blessing ashes and distributing them. The blessing of ashes takes place before the distribution. The distribution, which entails the placement of the ashes on a person’s forehead, is itself not a blessing, even though ordained or lay ministers typically make the sign of the cross. The faithful receive a blessing from the reception of the blessed ashes, but the distributor does not himself perform a blessing in the distribution process. This is why, unlike with blessings in the Church’s Book of Blessings, there is no prayer of blessing in the distribution of the ashes, only words to say when distributing the ashes.

The Church clearly provides that lay people may participate in the distribution of ashes: “The rite may be celebrated by a priest or deacon who may be assisted by lay ministers in the distribution of the ashes. The blessing of the ashes, however, is reserved to a priest or a deacon.”

The Book of Blessings, under the heading “Offices and Ministries,” defines “lay minister” in the following passage:

…laymen and laywomen, in virtue of the universal priesthood, a dignity they possess because of their baptism and confirmation, may celebrate certain blessings, as indicated in the respective orders of blessings, by use of the rites and formularies designated for a lay minister. Such laypersons exercise this ministry in virtue of their office (for example, parents on behalf of their children) or by reason of some special liturgical ministry or in fulfillment of a particular charge in the Church, as is the case in many places with religious or catechists appointed by decision of the local Ordinary, after ascertaining their proper pastoral formation and prudence in the apostolate.

One can conclude that a lay minister assisting in the distribution of ashes should have received the sacrament of Confirmation which is apostolic and available only through the ministerial priesthood. One can also conclude that proper formation be requisite for carrying out the office.

Who may receive ashes on Ash Wednesday?
May baptized non-Catholics receive ashes, or is such only for Catholics?

The Code of Canon Law, canon 1170 prescribes:

Can. 1170 Blessings which are to be imparted first of all to Catholics, can also be given to catechumens and even to non-Catholics unless there is a prohibition of the Church to the contrary.

This canon is under the section on sacramentals. While we know that non-Catholics cannot have access to Catholic sacraments, except for a just cause under various circumstances, sacramentals may be more widely participated in by others. Ashes are considered by the Church a sacramental. Therefore, the imposition of ashes upon non-Catholics falls under canon 1170.

According to this canon, such blessings may be given to non-Catholics unless prohibited elsewhere by law. There is no such prohibition in liturgical law, but there is a restriction. The Book of Blessings says:

The season of Lent begins with the ancient practice of marking the baptized with ashes as a public and communal sign of penance (no. 1656).

Ashes may be imposed upon baptized non-Catholics, but not unbaptized persons. Persons not yet regenerated through the Sacrament of Baptism cannot, properly speaking, do penance, nor can they share in the “communal” aspect of the sign. Baptism is the gateway to the community of God’s faithful people.

Lastly, while sacraments can only be administered by Catholic ministers to members of the Catholic faithful alone (canon 844), blessings of various
kinds can be imparted to objects, homes, animals, etc. It is easily seen, then, that blessings can be ministered to persons as well, whether Catholic or otherwise.

What are the origins for abstaining from meat on Fridays During Lent?
Before commencing His earthly public ministry, Jesus fasted and prayed for 40 days and 40 nights (cf. Mt. 4:1-11). In announcing the kingdom of God, Jesus makes clear that repenting—which includes doing penance—is part of living the Gospel (Mk. 1:15 cf. Mt. 6:16-18).

In addition, Friday has long been recognized as a special day for penance to commemorate the suffering and death of Jesus. For example, as noted in the Didache, a second-century document which purports to present the teaching of the first Apostles (cf. Acts 2:42), early Church leaders prescribed that Friday was a day of fast and abstinence. Christians were instructed by their pastors to practice fast and abstinence: “Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies: fast for those who persecute you. . . . Do not let your fasts be with the hypocrites. They fast on Monday and Thursday; but you shall fast on Wednesday and Friday” (Didache 8:1). Such Friday fasting was a common rule for both the Eastern and Western Church. In his third-century De jejunio (On Fasting), 14, Tertullian makes note of such a rule.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. V states that abstinence in the early Church meant refraining from flesh meat and all meat products, including milk, eggs, and milk products. Fish or mollusks were not considered a type of meat and therefore did not come under the prohibition of abstinence. The encyclopedia adds that, “[t]hroughout the history of the Church, law and custom regarding fast and abstinence were subject to local variations, both as to the times observed and as to the quantity and quality of food permitted” (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1967, p. 848).

In an article on abstinence, The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that by Pope Nicholas I, who reigned from 858-67, decreed that the faithful were to abstain from meat on Friday. This seems to be the earliest directive that applied to the whole Church—as distinguished from local or regional directives—regarding such regular Friday abstinence.

To read more on this subject, access The Catholic Encyclopedia online at There is a good article on “abstinence.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, which was written early last century and is available in some libraries, also has a worthwhile, related article on “Lent.” The New Catholic Encyclopedia is available in many public and university libraries.

Is it acceptable to remove the holy water from the holy water fonts during Lent?
When this is done, the fonts are left empty, covered with cloth, or filled with sand.

Until recently, there was no directive from the Vatican regulating this practice. As in other such cases, it was left to the discernment of the local bishop whether it would be allowed. However, according to Adoremus Bulletin, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has recently addressed this question and issued a negative response (Prot. N. 569/00/L). The response was to a private party who made the text available to Adoremus. The Congregation gave two reasons for their negative response:

1. The liturgical legislation in force does not foresee this innovation, which in addition to being praeter legem [beyond the law] is contrary to a balanced understanding of the season of Lent, which though truly being a season of penance, is also a season rich in the symbolism of water and baptism, constantly evoked in liturgical texts.

2. The encouragement of the Church that the faithful avail themselves frequently of the [sic] of her sacraments and sacramentals is to be understood to apply also to the season of Lent. The “fast” and “abstinence” which the faithful embrace in this season does not extend to abstaining from the sacraments or sacramentals of the Church. The practice of the Church has been to empty the Holy Water fonts on the days of the Sacred Triduum in preparation of the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil, and it corresponds to those days on which the Eucharist is not celebrated (i.e., Good Friday and Holy Saturday).

Do Sundays of Lent have a penitential character?
Sundays of Lent have a penitential character, but one markedly different from that of the weekdays of Lent. Because Sunday is primarily a day of celebration of the resurrection (Catechism, nos. 2174, 2177), it is not counted among the “forty days” of Lent that are traditionally marked by fasting.

“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice” (no. 2181) and retains its essential character as a day marked by “worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body” (no. 2185).

Nevertheless, the entire season of Lent, including the Sundays of Lent, is a time of penance. The penitential character of Sundays of Lent is reflected in the wearing of violet vestments and the prayers and readings of the Sunday Masses. It is also reflected in the prohibitions of the singing of the Gloria, the singing of the Alleluia, the adorning of the altar with flowers, and the playing of the organ and other instruments (except for the purpose of merely sustaining singing).

The discipline of the Church and the piety of Christians throughout the centuries, however, manifest that penance is expressed differently on Sundays of Lent from weekdays of Lent. In the early Middle Ages in the West, the weekdays of Lent were days of fast (one meal) and abstinence (at that time, from dairy products as well as from meat), while Sundays of Lent were days of abstinence only. The Holy See later permitted meat and dairy products to be eaten on Sundays of Lent. Today, of course, only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fast and abstinence (from meat), while all the Fridays of Lent are days of abstinence.

Penance extends beyond fasting. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works)” (no. 1438).

Sundays of Lent, then, are days of penance, but the Sunday penance ought to take the form of prayer, almsgiving, pilgrimages, and retreats rather than mandatory fasting and abstinence.

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