Marian Catechists and the Holy Season of Lent--a time to fall more deeply in love with Jesus Christ

by Msgr. Roger J. Scheckel, Spiritual Advisor of the Marian Catechist Apostolate

I have been asked in this article to provide reflection and direction concerning what Marian Catechists are to do during this Season of Lent.

I would like to make my response to this question into two parts, the first being more reflective in nature and a second part that gives some specific direction.

The Season of Lent is to be used by the Marian Catechists to deepen the conversion of their hearts and minds in the life that is Christ. Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II stated in his Message for Lent 2002, that Lent is “the providential time for conversion.” How do we take up this task of a deeper conversion?

The devotional and spiritual practices that are expected of the Consecrated Marian Catechist, as well as those preparing for consecration are substantial. If you are faithfully following the spiritual regimen set down by the late Father John A. Hardon, then, as you know well, your devotional and spiritual practices throughout the day and week are considerable. Rather than encouraging Marian Catechists to do more during the Season of Lent, I will encourage you to do what you are doing, better.

This Season of Lent would be a good time for the Marian Catechist to discern whether or not he or she carry out their devotions with devotion. This discernment approaches the issue of conversion, insofar as it asks consideration of whether or not one’s heart is truly present in one’s prayer and devotion. What is the motivation and inspiration for our spiritual and devotional exercises? Hopefully it is a greater love of God.

Our spiritual and devotional exercises are means to an end. They are not something we do in order to get them done. Granted, some days are like that. The best we can do is get our prayers and devotions “done.” However, we can never allow that to become the approach to our devotions and prayer for long periods of time. Our prayer and devotion are meant to deepen our love for Jesus Christ. If it falls short of this, we should not abandon our spiritual practices and exercises, which can be a temptation, rather we renew them through a renewal of our heart. This is the matter of conversion. This Lenten Season provides then an opportunity to confront a carelessness that may have entered our hearts.

Another way of putting this matter is to say that Lent should be used by Marian Catechists to fall more deeply in love with Jesus Christ. When speaking of falling more deeply in love with someone, it presumes that there was a first time that you met and began to love one another. For the Christian, we identify this time or event with our Baptism.

The Sacrament of Baptism and the Season of Lent are connected catechetically and liturgically. The forty days of Lent serves as a period of intense preparation for the catechumen; described by the Church as a period of enlightenment and purification for those preparing for the Sacrament of Baptism. The Diocese of La Crosse uses materials from the Association of Catechumenal Ministry. In reading the literature published by them, it indicates that, if the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RICA) is done in a parish setting according to the Church’s mind and heart, there exists the possibility of renewing the entire parish. This is a significant claim! It is a wonderful possibility to consider. But how might it happen?

I believe it may be explainable in light of a phenomenon that we from time to time witness and experience personally. It has to do with something new being able to inspire something that is older, particularly in matters where love is involved.

One example of where this phenomenon may be viewed is in the reaction of an elderly nursing home resident that is visited by a toddler or young child. The excitement and response of the elderly person indicates that while the elderly person’s body might be old and tired, their heart easily leaps toward the child. You sense the elderly person feels young again. This phenomenon can also be observed at weddings and ordinations. The married couples and priests who are seasoned in their vocations can be deeply moved when they hear the newly married and ordained professing their vows. It is as if they are transported back to the event of their own wedding or ordination. It can evoke from those who are older and more seasoned in their vocations emotions so deep that they are moved to tears of joy.

In my opinion it is this phenomenon that begins to explain the claim that the catechumenal ministry has the potential to renew an entire parish. If the Rite of Christian Initiation is done well within a parish, the majority of parishioners should be coming into the presence of a person who is falling in love with Jesus Christ for the first time. They are able to sense the catechumens’ excitement for and anticipation of the love of Christ that is about to enter their souls through the Sacrament of Baptism. If the more seasoned Christian has allowed his or her heart to grow careless in loving God, has over time fallen into a dry and routine profession and practice of the Faith, the witness of the catechumen may be what is needed to move them from that point.

Get involved in the preparation of catechumens
To make firmer the point I alluded to earlier, if it is possible for you to get involved in the preparation of catechumens, do so. I believe it can be an experience that brings you personal renewal as well as renewal to the local Church. The catechumenal ministry if carried out in accordance to the mind and heart of the Church can and should be as the Church herself maintains, the paradigm for all adult catechesis that takes place within the Church. The needs of the catechumenal ministry are an almost ideal fit with the aspirations and goals of the Marian Catechist Apostolate.

Practice penance and almsgiving
Lent, like the season of spring in which it is celebrated, is a time of new birth as well as a time of renewal and awakening of that which has fallen into a deep slumber or hibernation, naturally and spiritually. Lent has rightly been called, “a springtime for business of the soul.”

Our devotional and spiritual practices as Marian Catechists, as well as the penitential practices of fasting and almsgiving recommended to the majority of Catholics during the Season of Lent are meant to be an effective means whereby our hearts pour out an ever new and joy-filled love for God. Lent is to be, as the Church prays in the Preface of the Lenten Weekday Mass, “a season of joy.”

Sadly, we are aware of too many Catholics who scoff at the idea of engaging in practices of penance. In their minds this is something medieval, something that the Second Vatican Council supposedly suppressed. Of course, we know that is not true. It can never be true. It is our Lord Himself who instructs us through the Gospel of Saint Matthew proclaimed every year on Ash Wednesday: “Jesus said to His disciples: ‘when you give alms … when you pray. . . when you fast …’ ” It is evident that Jesus expects His followers to carry out these practices. However, point out they are not to be carried out with selfish hearts, hearts whose only concern is how these practices appear to the public.

The truly penitential and devoted heart seeks to have as its primary and best love, God alone. Notice in this same Gospel passage from Saint Matthew (6: 1-6, 16-18) how Christ encourages a particular aloneness with God when carrying out the three traditional Lenten practices of almsgiving, prayer and fasting: “Keep your deeds of mercy secret . . . close your door and pray to your Father in private . . . in that way no one can see you are fasting but your Father.”

What then are Marian Catechists to do for the Season of Lent? Love God with your whole heart!

Make a Lenten retreat
I will now focus on some specific direction that Marian Catechists may wish to take for the Season of Lent. The Season of Lent seeks the disposition of the human heart spoken of above. The forty days of Lent recall our Lord’s forty days in the desert. Lent can be understood then in the words of Father Hardon as “a retreat with the Lord.”

Lent is a good time to make the 30-day Ignatian Retreat if you have not done so, or to repeat it, if you have made it previously. Those of you who have made the Ignatian Retreat know that in the first week Saint Ignatius requires the retreatant to consider the nature of evil in the world as well as its effects in one’s personal life through sin. Saint Ignatius, arguably the greatest retreat master in the Church’s history, begins with a consideration of evil. Also, the Church in her choice of Gospel on the First Sunday of Lent, always begins with Jesus’ confrontation with evil, when during His forty days in the desert, He came face to face with the Father of Lies, the Devil. Our Lord faced temptation Himself, so that as the author of Hebrews (4:15) states: “we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.”

Look at temptations in one's life
I would recommend that this Lent be used by Marian Catechists to consider the phenomenon of temptation. Your catechetical study could focus on a deeper understanding of the three sources of temptation: the devil, the poor example that is given by others (the world), and our own wounded and weak human nature (the flesh). The Catechism of the Catholic Church is the best place to begin when seeking the true content of catechesis. I would also recommend listening to or as is the case for many Marian Catechists, re-listening to Father Hardon’s talk entitled “The Two Standards, Christ and Satan” which is the second talk from his, The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

Make a general confession
I would also recommend for Marian Catechists to engage in a general examen of their moral and spiritual life during the Lenten Season. As it is a good practice for a business firm or institution to make an annual audit of the various transactions that have taken place over the past year, this is also true in the spiritual life. The general examen could cover the course that your life has taken since the past Lent. When the general examen is done well, it helps the person come to a deeper understanding of those temptations present in one’s life and how they reveal themselves as near occasions of sin. The general examen is done in prayer and then a general confession is made to a confessor who should have a particular sensitivity for this spiritual practice. I have heard from a number of Marian Catechists that they have been discouraged by some priests in carrying out the general confession during the course of the Ignatian retreat. They believe, incorrectly, that what is being encouraged is for the penitent to confess again sins that have already been absolved. The general confession is a devotional practice that has a long history that includes many saints who have used it fruitfully in their lives.

Evaluate daily examination of conscience
Along with the recommendation for the general examen and general confession, I would also encourage Marian Catechists to evaluate the quality of the daily examination of conscience that they make each evening before going to sleep. You may want to add an extra two minutes to your examination during this Season of Lent. The daily examination of conscience is important for living the moral and spiritual life with integrity and devotion. Along with encouraging you to seek the Sacrament of Penance when necessary, it helps identify where and how various temptations and occasions for sin are at work in your life.

Develop self-knowledge
One of the best guards we can maintain in our confrontation with temptation is self-knowledge. We witness our Lord dismissing quickly and completely the temptations of the Devil. He can do so because He is self-possessed through His self-knowledge that He is the Son of God. As an aside, I have always wondered how those theologians who claim that Jesus never really knew during His earthly ministry that He was divine explain His complete and thorough repudiation of the Devil when confronted in the desert. It is evident that the Devil has had an encounter with someone far greater than himself. It is important to develop self-knowledge in the light of Faith. Such a self-knowledge is furthered through one’s daily examination of conscience.

Devoutly make the Sign of the Cross
Another point of direction to recommend and that may seem trite is to rededicate yourself to making a devout Sign of the Cross. The Sign of the Cross we make with holy water when we enter a church is a reminder of our baptism. I have already indicated the particular relationship that Lent has with the Sacrament of Baptism. In terms of using this Lent to deepening our awareness of the phenomenon of temptation, the Sign of the Cross has traditionally been a powerful spiritual antidote to temptation. It should be done with intention and care. As I am sure you are well aware, the Sign of the Cross has two dimensions: words that profess our belief in the Blessed Trinity and a gesture which is a profession of the salvation won for us by Christ through His holy cross. With such a concise profession of the two central mysteries of our Christian Faith united in word and gesture, it is not difficult to understand why the Sign of the Cross has proven itself to be so powerful in the face of temptation. If its importance needs to be renewed in your life, no better time than these forty days of Lent.

Practice courage and fortitude
I would also suggest to Marian Catechists that for this Lenten Season you practice the virtue of courage or fortitude. This is the one cardinal virtue that stands up to temptation. You gain the virtue by practicing it. During this Lent find a situation or situations that need a witness to the Faith and assert yourself in making it. The devil, as Saint Ignatius tells us, is always examining our lives, looking for our weakest point. He looks for that one chink in our spiritual armor that allows him to set a hook. By practicing courage we become, with the help of God’s grace, stronger in the face of temptation. We must realize that in many ways evil has ratcheted itself up many notches over these past years. It has sought out the great and wonderful inventions and accomplishments of humankind and infiltrated them with its perversion. Take for example the Internet, with its illuminative offerings of immorality available with the click of button. To live the Christian life with integrity in today’s culture requires a great amount of fortitude. The Church at this time in Her history needs members who are courageous.

Be fortififed in prayer
My final direction has to do with prayer. In the face of temptation we must be fortified in prayer. Prayer to our Blessed Mother is especially effective when faced with temptation. In this culture where sin and evil present themselves as I already mentioned, in such an illuminative display on our computer and television screens, we are able to observe the grace of God working through Pope John Paul II in his giving to the Church the Illuminative Mysteries of the Rosary. This Lent could provide a wonderful opportunity to begin to plummet the depths of each of the Illuminative Mysteries. By so doing, we will become more closely united to Mary, our mother and to her Immaculate Heart that is in perfect union with the Sacred Heart of her Son Jesus. With our hearts united in prayer with the Immaculate Heart of Mary we may over these next forty days, fall more deeply in love with Jesus Christ.

I hope that these reflections provide some assistance to the Marian Catechists as you begin the holy and joyful Season of Lent.

An Address Given to Marian Catechists on March 1, 2003, the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, at Saint James the Less Parish in La Crosse, Wisconsin