Who knows how long before public Masses are banned here in San Francisco? Our good archbishop has so far stood strong against pressure from other bishops who have already canceled Masses. I’m fairly certain they feel compelled by their lawyers and PR agents, as they have mostly been through twenty years of handling clergy abuse cases. In the long run it doesn’t work, and we priests in the trenches are sorely tempted to think the hierarchical Church is not putting first things first.
The first thing to do in Lent is not to rush out for more toilet paper, or even for a gallon of milk, but to pray and fast. “These types,” the Lord tells us, “are only driven out by prayer and fasting.” But how hard it is to fast when we don’t have a clear reason to do so! I set out on Ash Wednesday, like all of you, to deny myself unnecessary food, but then stress levels rise, frustration discourages us, and we instinctively think of the refrigerator.
The three children at Fatima did not pray and fast well at first. They would cheat shamelessly on the rosary so they could get to their games, and they didn’t fast much. But then Our Lady visited them, and in July 1917 she showed them “hell, where poor sinners go.” The vision of hell shocked them; they began to pray from the heart, and they lost their fear of fasting. They now had a reason to fast, to keep even one person from falling into that abyss of horror.
When a priest hears a heartfelt confession of a “poor sinner,” someone who confesses his longing to do good but feels helpless before his demons and compulsions, the priest’s heart is moved. He assigns a bracing penance before granting absolution, but his heart bleeds for his penitent. He resolves to do the penance with his suffering child. “For your penance, I want you to skip lunch today.” And the priest himself feels the need to give up lunch that day too. Real suffering gives the priest a reason to fast, and makes the sacrifice sweet.
We will find it relatively easy to fast, and offer other sacrifices, if we have a reason to do so. “Confess your sins to one another” St. James tells us. Open your hearts to your spouse, your parents, your children, and your friends (always prudently, of course), and you will find that reason to offer sacrifices for each other. We can only fast well if we fast together. Jesus brought his three closest disciples into the Garden of Gethsemane with him. Let us go with Him too, to offer the sacrifice.