Rorate Caeli

Homily by a Traditional Priest for the First Sunday of Lent

I am delighted to be able to present readers with the transcript of a homily that was delivered by a traditional priest at a Mass yesterday in the midwestern United States and subsequently shared with Rorate, on condition of anonymity. May the Lord reward this faithful priest and make his flock truly grateful for the solid nourishment they are receiving from him!

And after he had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.
Dominica Prima in Quadragesima
22 February 2015

We have all heard of the Gospel account of the Transfiguration atop the mountain.  Perhaps less familiar to many is what was happening at the base of the mountain while Our Blessed Lord was showing Himself to Peter, James, and John.  A man had a son who was possessed by a dumb spirit.  He had brought him to the disciples, but they had been unable to liberate him from the demon.  Upon descending from the mountain, Our Lord rebukes the crowd that had gathered with these words: “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you?  How long am I to bear with you?  Bring him to me.”  The child is brought to him and, in one of the more dramatic episodes in the Gospel (Mark 9:20-27),  Jesus proceeds to cast out the demon.  Later His disciples ask Him, “Why could we not cast it out?”  Jesus’ reply should give us something to think about: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29). 

As you know, the season of Lent is forty days long (not counting Sundays) because it represents the forty days that Our Lord spent in the desert at the commencement of His mission to redeem the world.  Since we are meant to share in that mission by bearing witness to Christ in our lives, it should come as no surprise that Lent affords us the opportunity to practice fasting and abstinence in accordance with the pattern given to us by Our Lord.  Indeed, the practice of fasting is reflected in the prayers of the usus antiquior of the Roman rite, where fasting and abstinence are mentioned with great frequency.  Today’s collect, for example, speaks of the “annual lenten observance” through which God might purify us.  It then speaks of abstinence, asking God to grant to His household (or family) that what it strives to obtain “by abstaining” it may achieve through good works.”  Unfortunately, however, the ascetical exercises that once informed the Lenten season, and which are reflected in the prayers of the usus antiquior of the Roman rite, no longer find a place in the lives of most Catholic faithful in the West today.   Sadly, when it comes to fasting, there is no small disconnect between what we pray and what we actually do.  We have by and large lost the practice of fasting.  We do as little of it as possible.  And why  not?  It’s irksome and difficult.  And so we gladly do the bare minimum, if that.  Not so with what we like, of course!  For example, the Church prescribes that Catholics are to receive Holy Communion at least once a year.  But practicing Catholics don’t mind at all receiving much more frequently than the bare minimum.  But as regards fasting, Catholics gladly make do with the bare minimum as prescribed by the Church’s law:  We’ll alter our eating habits on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; we’ll abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent.  Anything more than that is simply too much to ask.  “I’m modern man,” we cry out.  “I need, I need!”   And yet, are we really so different from our forbears in the faith that we don’t need the benefits of fasting?” 

This disconnect between what we pray and what we actually do is nothing new.  It was observed by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, considered by many to be, together with John Carrol, one of the founders of the Catholic Church in America.  Before she became a Catholic, St. Elizabeth was an Episcopalian, a member of Trinity Episcopal Church on Broadway, just opposite Wall St., in New York City.  The curate of this historic church, the Rev. John Henry Hobart, at the time happened to be Elizabeth’s spiritual director.  Anyway, her husband William suffered from consumption (i.e., tuberculosis), for which his doctor eventually recommended that he seek out the warmer climes of Europe.  So, in 1803, William and Elizabeth set sail for Italy, arriving in December of that year at the port city of Livorno in the Tuscan region of Italy, where one of William’s trading partners, Filippo Felicchi, lived with his family.  Unfortunately, shortly after they arrive William succumbs to his illness.  Meanwhile, St. Elizabeth stays on with the Filicchis, and is introduced to the Catholic faith through them.  She also is able to experience Lent as practiced by the Felicchi family.  Writing to her sister-in-law, Rebecca, during this time, she shares the following: “You may remember when I asked Mr. H [i.e., the curate of Trinity Episcopal] what was meant by fasting in our prayer book –– as I found myself on Ash Wednesday morning saying so foolishly to God, ‘I turn to you in fasting, weeping and mourning,’ and I had come to church with a hearty breakfast of buckwheat, cakes and coffee, and full of life and spirits, with little thought of my sins –– you may remember what he said about its being old customs, etc.  Well, the dear Mrs. F. [i.e., Mrs. Filicchi] who I am with, never eats, [during] the season of Lent, till after the clock strikes three.  Then the family assembles.  And she says she offers her weakness and pain of fasting for her sins, united with Our Savior's sufferings.  I like that very much.”[1]

Notice what fasting meant to the Felicchis.  It meant delaying when one eats.  Perhaps not everyone can fast until “the clock strikes three”, but surely an effort can be made to delay one’s breakfast by a few hours, if not skip it altogether.

Notice, too, the last words quoted:  “I like that very much.”  With these five words, St. Elizabeth unwittingly aligns herself with none other than St. Benedict.  For in Chapter Four of his Rule, under the heading “Instruments of Good Works”, St. Benedict lists the following “instruments”:  “10. To deny oneself in order to follow Christ.  11. To chastise the body.  12. Not to seek after luxuries.  13. To love fasting.”

Do we “love fasting”?  Or are we so “modern” that we can’t possibly learn to love this “instrument” of good works?  On the whole, I think it’s accurate to say that we moderns do not love fasting.

But why don’t we love fasting?  On this very day thirty-five years ago, Pope St. John Paul asked a similar question. On that day he was the guest of the North American College in Rome.  Over dinner, he asked the rector, Mgsr. Charles Murphy, “What happened to fast and abstinence in the Church in the United States?”   As Msgr. Murphy points out in his book on fasting, whether we are talking about the custom of abstaining from meat on Fridays during the year or practicing fasting and abstinence during Lent, a major part of the answer begins at the Vatican itself.   A little more than 49 years ago, on February 17, 1966, Pope Blessed Paul VI issued Pœnitemini, an apostolic constitution dealing with fasting and abstinence.  The Pope’s desire, it appears, was to rescue the ancient penitential practice of fasting and abstinence from the “legalism and minimalism into which it had fallen.”   Unfortunately, his approach had the opposite effect.  For though the Pope pays tribute to the not-so-very ancient penitential practices, he asserts that they do not fit well with the circumstances of modern life.  Our times are just so different from previous eras!  What to do, then?  Well, instead of exercising the virtue of penance by actually practicing bodily fasting & abstinence the better to be converted to the Lord (and practice good works), the Pope broadens the range of possibilities so as to include “persevering faithfulness to the duties of one’s state in life”; “acceptance of the difficulties arising from one's work and from human co-existence”; “patient bearing of the trials of earthly life and of the utter insecurity which pervades it.”  All of these are good, but they are not fasting.  Murphy concludes: “The constitution goes on to recommend voluntary, self-chosen penances such as works of charity on behalf of the poor as complements to or even substitutes for fasting.  The old custom of "giving things up" for Lent thus became disparaged as something negative, while ‘doing things for others’ was seen as more positive.” 

What was the net effect of all this?   In essence, the sort of Lenten fasting and abstinence that St. Elizabeth witnessed during her stay with the Filicchis and which she undoubtedly adopted herself, fell by the wayside.  Worse, still, with the promulgation of the reformed Roman Rite (now known as the Ordinary Form), the Lenten prayers were largely expunged of their references to actual bodily fasting.   Take, for example, the collect from Monday during the First Week of  Lent.  The original prayer, which continues to be preserved in the usus antiquior, reads as follows: “Convert us, O God our Savior, and, that this Lenten fast may profit us, instruct our minds in heavenly teachings.”  “Converte nos, Deus salutaris noster: et, ut nobis jejunium quadragesimale proficiat, mentes nostras cælestibus instrue disciplinis.”  The revised prayer is exactly the same –– except the word jejunium (fast) is replaced with the more generic opus (work).  Thus, “The character of Lent thereby was given a somewhat different focus.”   A a result, when it comes to the idea of a Lenten fast, most modern Catholics in the West are spared that awkward disconnect between what they pray and how they live.

On the other hand, plenty of modern eastern Catholics, as well as Orthodox Christians, continue the ancient –– and very Biblical –– practice of engaging in fasting and abstinence during Lent.  For example, amongst the Orthodox, the Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent are times when no food may be taken until after sunset.  Two Sundays before the start of Lent, abstinence from meat begins and lasts through the whole Lenten season.  On the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, dairy products and eggs are removed from the diet until Easter. 

Consider, also, how much more fruitful ecumenical dialogue would be if Roman Catholics valued fasting as much as Orthodox Christians.  In 1983, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger touched on this connection when he preached the Lenten retreat for the Pope and the Roman curia at the Vatican.  In one of his talks, the future Pope Benedict XVI relates how Cardinal Willebrands, the president at the time of the Pontifical Concil for Promoting Christian Unity, told him about a conversation he had had with the Patriarch of the Coptic Church in Egypt at the end of the latter’s visit to Rome.  “Yes,” he said, “I have understood that our faith in Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is identical.  But I have [also] found that the Church of Rome has abolished fasting and without fasting there is no church.”   Obviously, the Patriarch of the Coptic Church considered fasting to be of great importance.  Of course, in principle the Church of Rome has not abolished fasting.  But in practice, the Patriarch’s observation rings true as much today as it did in the early eighties.  Without a doubt, such a person would have a lot more respect for the Church of the West if he saw evidence that the Catholic hierarchy and faithful alike took fasting every bit as seriously as the Church of the East, and stopped making excuses for modern man on account of his needs and circumstances!

Actuallly, modern man stands in desperate need of fasting and abstinence. After relating the remarks of the Patriarch of the Coptic Church, Cardinal Ratzinger proceeded to speak of fasting in relation to conversion –– of putting God first in one’s life:  “The primacy of God is not really achieved if it does not also include man's corporality.  The truly central actions of man's biological life are eating and reproduction.  Therefore virginity and fasting have been from the beginning of the Christian tradition two indispensable expressions of the primacy of God, of faith in the reality of God.  Without being given corporeal expression also, the primacy of God with difficulty remains of decisive moment in man's life.  It is true that fasting is not all there is to Lent, but it is something indispensable for which there is no substitute.  Freedom in the actual application of fasting is good and corresponds to the different situations in which we find ourselves.  But a communal and public act of the Church seems to be no less necessary than in past times, as a public testimony to the primacy of God and of spiritual values, as much as solidarity with all who are starving.  Without fasting we shall in no way cast out the demon of our time.”[2]  And what is the demon of our time?  In our day, man is possessed with the idea that he himself holds the primacy in everything; that he, not God, is “the measure of all things.”

When we consider the truly demonic plight of modern man (that he is self-absorbed, willfully arrogant, and increasingly enslaved to his passions), we shall have to agree with Cardinal Ratzinger’s assessment that what modern man really needs –– perhaps more than at any other time in history –– is a renewed commitment to fasting.  After all, in the estimation of St. Thomas Aquinas, fasting benefits a person in three ways.[3] First, fasting guards and promotes the virtue of chastity.  St. Paul suggests as much in today’s epistle by linking the two.  Second, fasting fosters the life of prayer.  Consider the case of the Prophet Daniel.  Only after fasting for three weeks was he granted a divine revelation (Dan 10:3). Third, fasting is penitential in character, inasmuch as through its practice we can make satisfaction  for sin, as the Prophet Joel instructs us (Joel 2:12-13; see the Lesson for the Mass of Ash Wednesday). There is plenty of sin these days for which to make atonement, beginning with the foolish notion that there is no such thing as sin.  

I challenge you, therefore, to bring into your own lives something of the ancient Lenten penitential practices once observed by the Felicchi family, and which had such a salutary influence on St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.  For what Cardinal Ratzinger observed more than thirty years ago remains just as true today: only with prayer and fasting will the demon with which modern man is possessed be cast out.


[1] Joseph I. Dirvin, C.M., Mrs. Seton: Foundress of the American Sisters of Charity (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1962), 138, cited in Charles M. Murphy, The Spirituality  of Fasting, ch. 1, from which any other unattributed quotations in this homily have been derived.
[2] Joseph Ratzinger, Journey to Easter: Spiritual Reflections the Season of Lent (New York: Crossroad, 1987), 23-24.
[3] See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, IIa IIae, q. 147, a. 1.