Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.
Our observance of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which falls on February 13 this year, and is a a day of fast and abstinence for Catholics. At Mass on Ash Wednesday, the imposition of ashes replicates an ancient penitential practice and symbolizes our dependence upon God's mercy and forgiveness.
During this Lent, the U.S. bishops are encouraging Catholics to make going to confession a significant part of their spiritual lives. They have issued a statement, "God's Gift of Forgiveness: The Pastoral Exhortation on the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation" that can be distributed and shared in parishes. Dioceses are encouraged to make the sacrament available often during Lent and to use these resources to promote participation. We are also providing resources to help individuals who have not been to confession in a while "rediscover" the sacrament.
During Lent, the baptized are called to renew their baptismal commitment as others prepare to be baptized through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, a period of learning and discernment for individuals who have declared their desire to become Catholics.
The three traditional pillars of Lenten observance are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The Church asks us to surrender ourselves to prayer and to the reading of Scripture, to fasting and to giving alms. The fasting that all do together on Fridays is but a sign of the daily Lenten discipline of individuals and households: fasting for certain periods of time, fasting from certain foods, but also fasting from other things and activities. Likewise, the giving of alms is some effort to share this world equally—not only through the distribution of money, but through the sharing of our time and talents.
The key to fruitful observance of these practices is to recognize their link to baptismal renewal. We are called not just to abstain from sin during Lent, but to true conversion of our hearts and minds as followers of Christ. We recall those waters in which we were baptized into Christ's death, died to sin and evil, and began new life in Christ.
Here are the guidelines for Fast and Abstinence:
Customarily, fasting required that a person take only one meal a day, but current Church discipline permits one to take a main meal and two lesser meals which together do not equal the main meal.
All persons who have reached their 14th birthday are bound by the law of abstinence. All adults are bound by the law of fast from their 18th to their 60th year.
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of abstinence from meat and meat products as well as days of fast.
The other Fridays of Lent remain days of abstinence from meat and meat products.
The Fridays of the year outside Lent remain days of penance, but the traditional abstinence from meat may be substituted with some other practice of voluntary self-denial or personal penance. This may be physical denial, self-restraint or acts of religion, charity or Christian witness.