(February 13, 2002)
Way back in Christian history, the period we now call "Lent" (from the Anglo-Saxon word for "spring") was devoted to the preparation of converts for baptism at Eastertime. Only later, when adult conversions became less common and infant baptisms became more the norm, did this season become more centered around the idea of penance, thought of as a kind of "second baptism" for those who had failed to live up to their Christian commitments. The choice of a forty-day period was dictated by the Gospel accounts of Jesus' own forty-day fast in the desert following his own baptism by John.
The process went something like this. On the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (called "Shrove Tuesday") those had been guilty of serious sins confessed them before the assembled congregation. On Ash Wednesday they were assigned their Lenten penance to be performed through the rest of that season, practices like fasting, extra prayer, and various good works in reparation for the harm done. On Holy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, they then came before the local bishop to be officially absolved from their sins and, providing they had sincerely performed their penances and had not fallen back into sin, they were formally re-admitted into full communion with the Church.
Over the centuries, these early Christian practices became watered down. Private confession to a priest, at least for less public sins, replaced public confession before the whole congregation. Private penances (usually just prayers) were assigned in place of more public ones, and bishops even delegated the power of official absolution to individual priests. But eventually, even this greatly relaxed discipline fell into disuse, with "Shrove Tuesday" -- the day for confessing sin -- becoming "Fat Tuesday" (Mardi Gras in French), a day dedicated more to debauchery and to committing sins rather than confessing them.
In recent years (since the Second Vatican Council) the Catholic Church has attempted to restore the ancient practice of using Lent as a period of preparation for baptism in a program called the "RCIA" or "Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults". After having completed an instruction course, the candidates are formally enrolled on the First Sunday of Lent, and through the whole period of Lent proceed through various stages of preparation before their baptism at the Easter Vigil ceremony on Holy Saturday night.
All this is fine. The world could certainly use a lot more truly adult, responsible Christians. But I wonder if what the Christian world really needs even more (and where the Catholic Church, with its great sense of tradition, could best lead the way) is a restoration of the ancient Lenten penitential discipline, even if with some major modifications.
Even if we allow for private confession of our sins (confession, one way or another, being essential for our own honesty -- just ask the folks at AA) what we also need is at least a much more public sense of our sinfulness and a more public avowal of our determination to do something about it. If, more recently, one-time public "Penance Services" or "Reconciliation Services" have partially addressed this need, what we really need is a much more thorough and systematic way of going about the whole process. Early Christianity had such a method. What we need to do now is to adapt it and reactivate it for our own times. Otherwise the solemn season of Lent itself will become, as it has for too many Christians, just another name, a curious relic of times past.