Now that Ash Wednesday has passed, the world's 1 billion or more Roman Catholics have entered the season of Lent. It's time for a short test.
During this holy season of penitence and reflection, America's 62 million Catholics are required to:
(a) Go to confession.
(b) Abstain from meat and fast by eating only one full meal on Fridays.
(c) Pray and meditate on biblical accounts of the suffering and death of Jesus, including attending weekly Stations of the Cross rites or an extra Mass.
(d) Increase their efforts to help the needy through volunteer work and donations.
(e) Make a unique personal sacrifice, such as giving up sweets, coffee, soap operas or SportsCenter on ESPN.
(e) All of the above or some combination of the above, depending on the conscience of the individual Catholic.
(f) None of the above.
Yes, this is a trick question and the key is the phrase "required to."
Modern Catholic leaders have steered away from dogmatic pronouncements about practical details in the spiritual lives of the faithful. The end result is that Catholics are gently encouraged to practice many spiritual disciplines during the Lenten season, including all of the above and more. However, they are required to do few things in particular and millions of Catholics ignore those regulations, as well.
"What is the reality? The reality is that most Catholics do not think much about the meaning of Lent," said Father William H. Stetson, director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., only a few blocks from the White House. "Most Catholics have little or no idea what they're supposed to be doing during this season, although they all want to go get ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday."
Lenten traditions have changed dramatically through the centuries, with some form of pre-Easter fast beginning in the early church. This evolved into a penitential season of 40 days, a number rich in biblical symbolism-- including the 40 days of prayer and fasting that Jesus spent in the wilderness.
For centuries, Roman Catholics observed a strict fast in which they ate only one meal a day, with no meat or fish allowed. Over time, regulations were softened to allow small amounts of food at two other times during the day.
Today, Catholics are asked to observe the strict fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent and Good Friday at the end. They are urged to avoid meat on Fridays in Lent, but the U.S. Catholic bishops now allow other acts of penance to substitute for this.
These Lenten regulations are usually published in parish newsletters and explained by priests during services.
According to canon law, noted Stetson, Catholics are supposed to take Holy Communion at least once a year, a tradition that millions of church members have grown up hearing described as their "Easter duty." The assumption is that this would require Catholics to go to confession during Lent before fulfilling that duty.
However, few priests and bishops would assume that to be true in American pews today. In the mid-1980s, a University of Notre Dame study found that 26 percent of active Catholics never go to confession at all and another 35 percent may go once a year. No one believes that those numbers are rising.
This points to a problem, said Stetson, a problem larger than any confusion that exists about the myriad layers of church laws, regulations and traditions that govern the holy season of Lent in America and the rest of the Catholic world.
The biggest problem, he said, is that so many Catholics no longer think of themselves as sinners.
"There are all kinds of actions that the church teaches are seriously sinful that the typical modern Catholic no longer believes are seriously sinful," said Stetson, who, as a 75-year-old priest, has seen many changes sweep through the Church of Rome. "Therefore, these typical Catholics walk up to the altar week after week to receive Communion without a single thought entering their minds about repentance or confession or anything like that.
"So you have to take that into account when you talk about Lent. In a penitential season you are supposed to feel real sorrow for your sins, which can be hard to do if you really do not think that you're sinning."