Lent: the annual catechumenate

Historians of the Roman liturgy generally reckon the restorations of the Easter Vigil (by Pius XII) and the adult catechumenate (by Vatican II) as two of the signal accomplishments of the 20th-century liturgical movement. I wouldn't contest that claim, but I'd add something else to the highlights reel: the recovery of the baptismal character of Lent for every Catholic.

Back in the day, Lent was about what you didn't do: eat candy, smoke, drink, whatever. And of course the three classic methods of keeping the Forty Days -- fasting, intensified prayer, and almsgiving -- retain their perennial significance. What I discovered three years ago, however, was that those practices come into clearer spiritual focus when they're "located" within an understanding that Lent is the season when all of us -- not just those who will be baptized or received into full communion with the Church at Easter, but all of us -- becomes, in a sense, catechumens.

Shortly before I spent Lent and Easter Week 2011 in Rome, preparing "Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches" (Basic Books), a friend suggested to me that the reformed liturgy of Lent fell into two broadly-defined periods. Digging into the liturgical texts of Lent on a daily basis in 2011, after attending Mass at the Roman station church of the day, persuaded me that he was quite right.

The days immediately following Ash Wednesday and the first two weeks of Lent have a penitential character, as the biblical and patristic readings at Mass and in the Liturgy of the Hours ask each of us to undertake an extended examination of conscience: Am I being the witness to the kingdom and the evangelical missionary that I ought to be? What within me needs purifying if I'm to become a better friend of Jesus Christ and a true embodiment of his saving grace and mercy? With whom must I be reconciled?

The tone shifts with the third Sunday in Lent, as the Church begins three weeks of reflection on the meaning of baptism and the liturgy asks all the baptized to consider how well we are living in imitation of Christ. The questions posed come from the three great catechetical Gospels read on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays in Lent: Jesus and the woman at the well; Jesus curing the man born blind; Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. In the early Church, the explanation of those Gospels completed the catechumens' preparation for baptism. For those already baptized, as I wrote in "Roman Pilgrimage," they prompt a searching reflection in preparation for our being blessed with Easter water, which is baptismal water:

"How am I responding to Christ's thirst for my friendship in prayer, in light of Jesus's invitation to the Samaritan women, whom he asked for a drink of water? How are my eyes being opened to the demands of my mission, by the Christ who gave sight to the man born blind? Do I, like Martha, truly believe that Jesus is the Son of the living God, with power to raise me, like Lazarus from the bonds of sin and death?"

Reflecting on those questions, the already-baptized experience a new catechumenate, a period of preparing to go up to Jerusalem with Jesus, who will meet his messianic destiny there -- and who, in embracing that destiny in obedience to the Father, will be revealed as the Risen Lord who makes all things new, including our brokenness.

The evangelical Catholicism of the 21st century and the third millennium demands more of Catholics than the culturally-transmitted and culturally-comfortable Catholicism in which many of us were raised. Confronting a culture that rejects the biblical vision of the human person and human relationships -- converting that culture -- is not easy. But it can be a great adventure, when it's lived in the confidence that what is revealed at Easter is true: love is stronger than death.

That is what Lent is for. The "annual catechumenate" of Lent prepares us to be missionary disciples who can display the divine mercy because we have known it in our lives.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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