Lent: Not just a private affair


Lent is not just a time of fasting; it represents an opportunity to practise important social responsibilities. Lawrence Ndlovu looks at the call from the country's bishops to help dismantle racism in South Africa, and how Lent can be an opportunity to make an impact in our communities. 

Lent is a special time of prayer, penance and almsgiving. Inherent in those three pillars of Lent is a certain demand for reflection and action. It should not be a cosmetic external exercise, but it should be a time of great depth. The Church places before all who observe Lent tools which are meant to facilitate this movement towards this depth like abstinence from meat and fasting (eating considerably less or one meal a day). These are not an end in themselves; we shouldn't feel as if we have observed Lent in its entirety if this is all we've done. If this was the case then those who are exempted from observing these, due to illness or advanced age, would be deemed as not having observed the demands of Lent. We are expected to do more.

The majority of Christians take up a personal interpretation in relation to the Lenten season. With regards to fasting, we often try to deny ourselves of foods that we love or habits that we struggle to shake-off. This in itself is very beneficial, but it should always be linked with a social benefit. For example, it feels like an achievement to avoid chocolate or not to smoke for the entire season, but many of us do not take this to its logical end. We should give to the needy the money saved from not having to spend on cigarettes, chocolates, meat and other popular fasting choices. The specific private choices made during Lent should not just serve the individual, but also society at large. Our fasting should contribute to our prayer life and our prayer life should contribute to our almsgiving. The understanding and the movement of the Lenten season should be one that starts with the self towards the other (towards society).

Towards an inclusive understanding of Lent

Although the season of Lent is observed mostly by Christians, its effects should not be exclusive to Christians. In 2016, the Justice & Peace department of the Southern African Bishop’s Conference (SACBC) decided to draw attention to the societal problem of racism. They offered points through which racism can be dealt with directly by all people. Their recommendations began with inviting the individual person to do practical acts like making friends with someone of a different race, apologise for personal complicity in individual and systemic racism, and moved towards the individual making a resolution to be a bridge builder between persons of different races. By doing so, the SACBC introduced an important dimension to our understanding of Lent as being a season which is beneficial for society at large.

In 2018, the bishops have taken this further, and have issued a guide to confronting racism in a booklet entitled Ten things that you can do during Lent. In a easy-to-follow guide, Catholics are encouraged to work on their prejudices and biases, to take a stand against racism, to recognise and resist systematic racism and to take part in at least one group discussion on racism within our communities. The guide, which builds on the SACBC pastoral letter on racism, aims to increase candid conversations on racism and its manifestations in order to address the problem in the country. All Catholics should use Lent to play an active role in dismantling racism.

Corporate Approach

It also seems logical that because Lent has such an overt connection to food – through abstinence and fasting – that issues of poverty be made central to this season. There is an urgent need to focus collectively on food waste (especially in the domestic space) and the engagement of corporate organisations who dispose of food almost daily. In addition parishes can consider establishing food banks through which those members of society who are unemployed and without food can be able to access something to sustain them. This corporate approach to Lent helps to make the effects of Lent more sustainable beyond the six prescribed weeks.

To some degree many Catholics make a joint (corporate) effort through the Lenten appeal collections. This effort has proven to be successful and must be encouraged, however it creates a lack of correspondence between the contributor and the beneficiary. Although the conference has in recent tried, through communication, to ensure that the contributors know exactly where their contribution went the problem of an absence of relationship between the giver and recipient is not dealt with. It is for this reason that intentional corporate acts are so important. There should be certain selected social acts which all persons can participate in. For example, if a certain work of mercy – like visiting the sick or imprisoned – is selected for that particular year or particular week of Lent then all parishes, Catholic schools and institutions should be engaged with that ministry for Lent. In addition, other members of the community, members of civil society and even government can be brought on board so that they too could see and feel the effects of Lent and may also have a sense of ownership of the season as well. Lent has the capacity to become an enhancer of social cohesion because it can have an ecumenical/ interfaith thrust, a multiracial/ multi-age character and a national (international) footprint.

In introducing these important social responsibilities to Lent, the individual person will also find this his or her prayer life is also enhanced. It is important also to add that these suggestions are not replacements for the other important pillars of Lent like penance. These should be added to the normative exercises of Lent. The season of Lent should contribute to the holistic person including society as a whole. Furthermore there is nothing stopping the individual and families from making their own decisions as to what their collective efforts for Lent are going to be.

Find more Lenten resources from The Jesuit Institute South Africa.

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Lent: Not just a private affair