What’s the Point of Lent? #4: Roman Catholic Practices

This is the fourth in a mini-series looking at how different traditions celebrate Lent. They build on each other, so you might like to catch up on the first three: 

Fasting in the Old Testament

Jesus and the Early Church

Orthodox Practices

Looking for Lent stuff on Pinterest (a current, geeky hobby of mine) leads almost exclusively to thoughtful posts by American Catholics (like this one), so I’ve been learning a lot about how my Catholic friends and family understand Lent and how they practice it. I’m surprised by a lot of it!

Many of you reading are Roman Catholics, too, so I hope you’ll be able to chip in with any corrections or personal reflections on Lent to add to my outsider’s perspective.


What's the point of Lent, Roman Catholic Lent, fasting prayer almsgiving, Pope Francis' Lent message, Christian parenting



Modern Roman Catholic Lenten practice involves the ‘three pillars’ of Lent: fasting, prayer and almsgiving (charitable giving of money to the poor).

Lent is intended to be a meaningful period of self-denial that benefits poorer neighbours, and, as Pope Francis says in this year’s message to the Church, Lent addresses the material, moral and spiritual poverty among us, and not just in a token or symbolic way:

Dear brothers and sisters, may this Lenten season find the whole Church ready to bear witness to all those who live in material, moral and spiritual destitution the Gospel message of the merciful love of God our Father, who is ready to embrace everyone in Christ. We can do this to the extent that we imitate Christ who became poor and enriched us by his poverty. Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.

Roman Catholic Lenten fasting is a modern example of ‘stationary’ or community fasting, where everyone is in it together and can draw strength from that. It is also inextricably connected to almsgiving and generosity.

There are different practices and norms around the world, but the basic plan since Pope Paul VI wrote on the subject in 1966 is for healthy adults to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year (with some exceptions for feast days), and to ‘fast’ on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. This fast is usually understood as restricting one’s eating to one full meatless meal in a day, or if more food is needed, to still eat less than the equivalent of two full meatless meals.

The Catholic Relief Society’s Operation Rice Bowl encourages people to donate the money they save while fasting and abstaining, which helps to strengthen the connection between fasting and almsgiving.


Pope Francis Lent message, Pope Francis on poverty, Christian parenting, feminist parenting

Pope Francis, via Wikimedia Commons


Pope Francis clearly sets out the need for this connection, spending half of his Lent letter on the matter of material poverty:

In imitation of our Master, we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it. Destitution is not the same as poverty: destitution is poverty without faith, without support, without hope. There are three types of destitution: material, moral and spiritual. Material destitution is what is normally called poverty, and affects those living in conditions opposed to human dignity: those who lack basic rights and needs such as food, water, hygiene, work and the opportunity to develop and grow culturally. In response to this destitution, the Church offers her help, her diakonia, in meeting these needs and binding these wounds which disfigure the face of humanity. In the poor and outcast we see Christ’s face; by loving and helping the poor, we love and serve Christ. Our efforts are also directed to ending violations of human dignity, discrimination and abuse in the world, for these are so often the cause of destitution. When power, luxury and money become idols, they take priority over the need for a fair distribution of wealth. Our consciences thus need to be converted to justice, equality, simplicity and sharing.

This is surely a compelling message to all Christians – Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant – and something we can all be drawn to in our Lenten practice. Pope Francis’ words echo the passage from Isaiah that we started with last week:

6 Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

(Isaiah 58:6-7)

Fasting in Lent, and on Fridays throughout the year, is also a penitential practice, meant to lead us all to consider our failings and turn our steps back towards God.

As in the Early Church and Orthodox practice, Easter for Roman Catholics is the time when adult converts are baptised. Everyone around these converts is called to encourage them throughout Lent and to be inspired by their example to remember their own baptismal vows.

For those who are already baptised, Lent is a time of renewed focus and discipline, a bit like an annual opportunity to publicly renew marriage vows.

It is common for individual Catholics to take on other disciplines and penances throughout Lent, like giving up texting (as an Italian church leader is exhorting his young people a few years ago) or chocolate, or reading a spiritually engaging book. These are left to individuals and households to decide on.

The other pillar of Lenten practice for Roman Catholics is prayer, particularly that which focuses on the suffering and death of Jesus, including optional prayer traditions like the Stations of the Cross. There is also a call this year, for instance, for all Roman Catholics in the United States to pray for peace in the Holy Land.

Some of this modern Roman Catholic practice of Lent overlaps with what we’ve discovered from the Early Church and Orthodox practices, but plenty of it is distinctive. As I’ve said, the way we celebrate Lent is not in any way prescribed by Jesus, so a bit of judicious picking and choosing seems absolutely appropriate.

Here’s the stuff I have gleaned along the way and want my future Lenten practice to reflect. It’s just a personal list, and I’d love your comments on what has struck you as helpful from each tradition.

Guiding Principles for Modern Lenten Practice

  1. Fasting is a response, not a means to an end (Old Testament pattern)
  2. Fasting needs to be connected to acts of compassion and generosity (Isaiah 58 and Roman Catholic practice).
  3. Lent isn’t a holy blip in an indifferent year, but a training step that introduces patterns of holier living (Early Church, Orthodox and Roman Catholic practice).
  4. Lent, and the fasting that goes with it, is a community experience, where we help each other in this extra effort of focus (Jewish tradition, Early Church, Orthodox and Roman Catholic practice).
  5. Easter is serious business and should perhaps provoke a serious, bodily response from us (Early Church and Orthodox practice).
  6. Sundays in Lent are for feasting, not fasting (Early Church, Orthodox and Roman Catholic practice).
  7. Lent can have a feeling of joyful anticipation (Orthodox practice).
  8. Lent is a spiritual workshop where we rededicate our lives to Christ and are invigorated for active lives following him. (Orthodox and Roman Catholic practice).
  9. Lent can have an element of ‘cleaning’, where we examine our consciences, mend broken relationships and even clean the house physically as a symbolic reinforcement of this (Orthodox practice).
  10. Lent can involve increased public reading of Scripture (Orthodox practice).
  11. Lent can involve increased time in prayer (Orthodox and Roman Catholic practice).
  12. Fasting (from food), abstinence (from meat or other luxuries), penance (other forms of self-denial) and ‘positive’ disciplines (adding something into life rather than removing it) are four different components that can each be helpful in different ways (Roman Catholic practice).
  13. Lent is a time of encouraging those who will be baptised at Easter and remembering and renewing our own vows to God (Early Church and Roman Catholic practice).


Your turn! Where are you at for Lent this year? What are you thinking and what will you do? I’d love to hear your thoughts so far.

Coming up next: Lent with KidsBefore Lent begins, though, it’s time to party on Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras 🙂 so check out my Pancake Party post at Kiwi Families for ideas for celebrating with your neighbours. 

You can also see my Lent Pinterest board, and follow Sacraparental on Facebook for extra daily snippets. Come on over!

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9 comments on “What’s the Point of Lent? #4: Roman Catholic Practices”

  1. Andy Reply

    my trouble-making grandfather (to all intents and purposes an atheist) had the suspicion that the fish on Friday fast was to drum up business for the fish-mongers of Rome. 🙂
    I didn’t realise it was so recent an addition to their traditions.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Oh, it’s not recent, but the whole regime was revamped under Paul VI.

      Did you know that seagulls were considered fish for the purposes of meatless abstinence?!

      • Andy Reply

        I did recall on an episode of QI that puffins were declared to be fish.
        Beaver are also considered to be “fish” as they are aquatic.

        i can’t find a link to back this up, but i recall hearing that oxford colleges didn’t permit pet dogs, and one don had a very well behaved dog and refused to get rid of it. rather than change teh rules and open the door to all dogs, they declared that animal to be a cat.

        • not a wild hera Reply

          Yes, I remember that too about the puffins – hilarious! I think anything in the water counts for fast days.

          Of course it is a bit comical how these things used to be practised. To be fair though, every contemporary Catholic resource I’ve looked at has stressed simplicity of diet as the key, and pointed out that a luxury lobster dinner on Fridays is not really in keeping with the spirit of the fast.

  2. Steph Reply

    All very helpful and interesting. Thanks!
    I have friends who have a practice (all year I believe) of regularly having a rice only meal. The kids (and adults) are allowed soy sauce or tomato sauce on a bowl of rice and that is all they eat for dinner. They only drink water and have a piece of fruit before bed (no other after dinner treats). They have a specially marked tin which they put the $10 (or whatever they would usually spend on a family meal) into. At the end of the year the kids go through a Tear Fund catalogue and decide on a project they will donate the accumulated money in the tin to.
    I am thinking that this could work as a “meatless Friday” fast during the weeks of Lent. It is something that can be done as a family and it could have a prayer time or lighting a candle included. It also involves giving something up in order to give to others.
    Doing it on a Friday would be an extra abstinence for the adults in our house because Friday night is usually when a bottle if wine and a block of chocolate comes out once the 4 year old is in bed to assist with end of the week relaxation!

    • not a wild hera Reply

      This is great detail, thanks, Steph. I’ve known a few people who do something like this. Often called ‘simple meal’ or something. I think there’s something significant in the sense of solidarity this kind of practice brings, as well as the tangible savings-for-giving element of it.

      Kids are much more up for this kind of stuff than we sometimes give them credit for, I think. A friend’s son was once quite distressed, tugging on his mum’s sleeve, saying, ‘Mum, come and look at the tv! There’s a little girl! She’s waiting for us to help her!’ from that old World Vision ad ‘A little girl waits…’

      How great to be able to respond to that kind of spontaneous compassion with, ‘well, let’s sit down and talk about how we can help her.’

  3. Anna S Reply

    Thanks for all of these posts, Thalia!

    I’ve been looking forward to seeing each one turn up. I’m going to shamelessly, er, borrow the great background work you’ve done for the study/reflection/thingy I’m leading at home group this Tuesday night. I haven’t yet worked out how I’m going to use the information, but hopefully by Tuesday I’ll have something sorted (and yes, there’ll definitely be pancakes!).

    I have been particularly struck by the quote on the quiet joy of anticipation, and I think I want those images of focussed waiting/preparation to infuse into my life over the next 6 weeks.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Oh, thanks, Anna, that’s lovely feedback!

      Yes, I know, that joyful anticipation idea is striking, isn’t it!?

      Please do borrow! No such thing as plagiarism in the church, I was always told 🙂 (The same is not true for Carey, student readers!)

      Enjoy the pancakes!

  4. Pingback: What’s the Point of Lent? #3: Orthodox Practices | Sacraparental

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