More than two hundred Year 7 boys rushed eagerly to the Rose Garden on Tuesday at recess. The College Executive was serving them pancakes! Shrove Tuesday was the occasion, the eve of Ash Wednesday. The lads’ emerging vocabulary would know little of that quaint adjective, shrove. This day was traditionally when sins were confessed and shriven or forgiven. If the boys had some French, perhaps they might more readily have recognised the day’s other ancient name, mardi gras, or ‘fat Tuesday’ – a time to use up the larder’s supply of butter and eggs for the long Lenten fast ahead. Hence the pancakes. And if we were really serious in our traditions, we would have thrown in a carnival, as they do in Rio, for one final fling – carne vale or ‘farewell to meat’ until Easter came around once again. Then, of course, more eggs.
We regularly speak of the forty days of Lent. Forty is a significant scriptural number: the ark afloat for forty days and nights; the Israelites wander forty years in the desert; Jesus prepares himself for mission during those forty wilderness days. So do we have a forty-day opportunity for readying ourselves for Easter in Lent. But if you ever bothered to count the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, you will tally more than forty. The explanation is that Sundays, the day of Resurrection, are discounted. Sundays are never penitential days. So, whether you have given up truffles or toddies for Lent, Sunday is always for rest and respite!
The Church asks that abstinence from meat and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. All who have completed their eighteenth year and have not yet begun their sixtieth year are bound to fast (i.e, take only one main and two lighter meals each day). All who have completed their fourteenth year are bound to abstain (i.e, not eat meat). In addition, everyone is encouraged to undertake some act of penance in Lent which may be extra prayer, some form of self-denial (‘giving up’ something that one likes), or donation to charitable works or service of others. Always a balance in our Lenten discipline – not only a ‘giving up’ but a ‘taking on’, not only abstaining but embracing, not only fasting oneself but feeding one’s fellows. This year, Pope Francis has asked us to reconsider the heart of this activity this Lenten season. According to Francis, our Lenten discipline must never become superficial. He often quotes one of the early Fathers of the Church, St John Chrysostom, who wrote:
“No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.”
In his annual Lenten message, the Pope writes about what he terms, ‘the globalization of indifference’:
“Indifference to our neighbour and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience … [W]henever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades … We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”
Here at the College, our collective Lenten support is for Project Compassion which aims to end poverty, promote justice and uphold the dignity of people in vulnerable communities around the world. The appeal is coordinated through Houses and mentor groups in the Senior School and through homerooms at Regis. This year’s Project Compassion focuses on ‘Food for Life’, throwing a spotlight on global food issues. It will empower vulnerable people to establish sustainable food sources and develop income streams for life. One of the Church’s contemporary heroes was the engaging and elfin-like Dom Hélder Câmara, for twenty years Archbishop of Recife in Brazil, who shared so profoundly the life of the urban poor. At one time, he was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. The endearing Archbishop is perhaps remembered best remembered for his aphorism:
“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
Câmara was making a distinction between works of charity (an immediate response to a need) and works of justice (working for changes to allay such needs in the first place). Project Compassion teaches our boys to respond in charity. Then, as they are shaped in their formation here, our firm hope is that they will use their talents to work for justice, to tackle structural sin, to transform the world. “Teach me to be generous” is one of the boys’ favourite Ignatian prayers. It is a prayer to a Lenten God who (as St Paul reminds us) stepped out of eternity into that first Easter to pour out his life and his blessings for us and on us. Now we, who are so gifted and graced, are called to model such selflessness. “We do not exist for ourselves alone” was the inspiration, taken from Cicero, of the earliest Jesuit Renaissance educators. A vision for the young men attending those first colleges. The same Spirit ought quietly fan our compassionate hearts this Lent.