Fr. Roger J. Landry
Bishop Connolly High School, Fall River, MA
February 28, 2001
1) A priest friend of mine recently told me a story that occurred 23 years ago last week. He had gone to Florida to visit his grandparents, but his father had a surprise for the three boys: a side trip to Winter Haven to see Red Sox in Spring Training. Spring Training. It was an 8 year old’s dream to see Jim Rice, Fred Lynn and Carl Yazstremski hitting tape measure shots. When he got there, it appeared that they were mainly warming up, doing drills, practicing double-plays without even baseballs, then fielding easy grounders or taking small pop-flies. He waited for them to finish. But they kept doing these simple drills, for the next two hours. He was so disappointed. Even at that age he could do what they were doing. At one point toward the time they were about to leave, Don Zimmer, the manager, came over to the fence to meet some of the fans. He gravitated toward the brothers. He greeted them cordially and signed an autograph. Then my friend asked him, “Why aren’t we seeing any homers? Why aren’t they hitting or doing anything hard today?” Zimmer stared at him straight in the eyes. He had a big round face. He adjusted the considerable amount of chew he had lodged between his tooth and gum and then said, with the authority and confidence of an Army General, “Son, every year we come down here to work on the fundamentals. You’ve got to work on the fundamentals. If you don’t get them right, you don’t get anything right.”
2) Lent is the time when the whole Church returns to fundamentals. Lent is the time when we return to focus on the most important things of all, the building blocks for getting everything right later. The things we do in Lent should be done to some degree throughout the entire year, but Lent, like Spring Training for baseball players, is the time to focus on these very things. What are these things?
3) The first thing is our relationship with Jesus. During the distribution of ashes in just a few minutes, Jesus will say to us, just like he said to his disciples 2000 years ago as soon as he began his public ministry, “Repent and believe in the Good News.” The first fundamental we have to focus on is turning away from sin, from whatever keeps us from the Lord, and believing in Jesus, who is and gave us the Good News.
4) That is why we have Ashes. Ashes, in the Old Testament, were always a sign of a person in repentance, asking God for forgiveness from sins. In the early Church, throughout the period of Lent, there was a class of people called public sinners who would wear ashes on their forehead for 40 days and then at the end of the period, confess their sins PUBLICLY before the bishop and all the people, before which the Bishop would absolve their sins in the name of the Lord. When we put ashes on ourselves, we remind ourselves of the fact that we too have sinned and are in need of the Lord’s mercy, that our sins in fact led to the death of the Lord, who came down from heaven out of love to die for our sins. This external sign is supposed to indicate an internal recognition that we have not followed the Lord as we know we should and that we’re doing a public penance in the hope of receiving God’s forgiveness and the ability to begin again.
5) The second thing involves the three things the new words say on the Bishop Connolly Sign on Elsbree as of this morning and what Jesus mentions in today’s Gospel: Returning to God by means of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are things we should be doing all year long, but Lent is a time to return to God by working on these fundamentals, in imitation of Jesus himself, who fasted for forty days in the desert, who prayed constantly to His father, and who gave everything he had, even his last drop of blood, for us who were in need.
6) So this Lent, let us all turn back to prayer. In the survey you filled out before vacation, 11 percent of you said you never pray; 14% that you pray seldom; 24% Every once in a while; 9% several times a month; 37% once a day and 4% several times a day. I would hope that everyone this Lent would increase the time they dedicate to the Lord. This is the most important conversation you can have. God listens to you and responds to your prayers. One practical way we’re hoping to make time for the Lord as a community this Lent is by starting what we’re beginning this Friday, with first Friday adoration of the Lord in the Eucharist. Each of us in the school will have the privilege of a one-period with the Lord in the chapel. If the Pope were here and wanted to have a 53 minute appointment with you, I think everyone would take it. Well, God wants an hour with you, and I hope that you look forward to it, beginning this Friday. Many Catholics also try to go to Mass during the week, some once a week, some every day. We have Mass four days a week here at Bishop Connolly and you’re all invited!
7) Fasting — We fast in Christianity to recognize first how many blessings we have from the Lord, that basically we don’t go hungry, but also to get us to hunger for more important things than bread alone. It’s an opportunity for us to put spiritual things ahead of material things, of putting God in front of everything else, including our good natural instincts and pleasure. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are two days of fasting. Everyone over 18 is required to fast, which means having one meal and then two very small veals that together don’t equal a second. Today, in union with some of our seniors who are already 18, we’re observing a one day fast from snacks in-between meals from the vending machines, which is a great act of solidarity with the whole Church.
8 ) Almsgiving — But fasting in and of itself is not an end, it’s a means to bring us closer to God and to those who are hungry and in need. That’s why next to the vending machines today there is a place where anyone who would want to leave a contribution for the poor may do so. Throughout Lent, when we return to the fundamentals, we should try to have a larger loving concern for all those who in need. First, materially — that’s why it’s so great what the school is doing in trying to start a food pantry through the St. Vincent de Paul society. But also spiritually, morally and emotionally — there are so many people who are lonely and who have no one to visit them. Perhaps this Lent we could think about lightening up someone’s day with a visit.
9) Catholic tradition has always added a last fundamental, a voluntary penance, something to work on to bring you closer to God and to what he calls us to. Once one I was in Rome our Rector, the priest in charge of the whole seminary, proposed a voluntary house penance, for everyone in the seminary, faculty, students and staff alike. It was this: to stop complaining. He recognized that complaints can, like cancer, corrode the whole atmosphere of a place. He noted truthfully that students were constantly complaining about other students, students about faculty, faculty about students, faculty about other faculty, etc. Occasionally I wonder if his analysis would also apply here to Bishop Connolly. There is a lot of complaining here and I think most, if not all of us, have been part of it. What I’d like to propose is that each of us voluntarily make it a joint penance to stop complaining, and when we hear another complain, just smile and remind the other that during Lent we’re going to have our tongues fast.
10) There’s an important spiritual reason for this, which is what Jesus said to us in the Gospel this past Sunday. He said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” Jesus did not say “Don’t criticize another,” particularly when another one might deserve it, but said first criticize yourself, take out whatever blinds us, focus on our own problems, and then, criticize another. He who made us knows us so well. He who created us knows us so very well. He knows that most of the time, the reason why we start criticizing others, the reason why we start noticing all of their flaws, is because we don’t have the guts to look in the mirror to see our own. The reason we criticize others is so that we can make ourselves look good in comparison with their flaws. In the seminary we used to have a saying that when someone came to you and started to complain about someone else or some decision that was made, always ask the question, “so what’s wrong inside of you?”, because more often than not, the person’s critical attitude derived from the fact that the person was not at peace with himself. When another person needs constructive criticism, it should always be done out of love, and not as a means to deflect attention from one’s own problems. This Lent will be a great time for us to focus on doing this together. By disciplining our tongues from criticizing, we can focus on taking out whatever planks we have in our eyes, in our lives, so that they we can truly love others and help them.
11) There’s no better place to start this whole Lenten journey than here at Mass, which is the greatest prayer ever made — Jesus’ own which saved us. We’ve fasted for at least an hour in preparation to receive Him. And he will give us the greatest alms, the greatest gift we’ve ever received, His own flesh and blood, his own life, out of love for us. Through this great gift, may we truly heed His words, repent and believe in the Gospel.