Catholic News Service photos
Laurel Russo receives mark of ashes during Ash Wednesday at St. Patrick Cathedral, New York.
Catholic News Service photos
Laurel Russo receives mark of ashes during Ash Wednesday at St. Patrick Cathedral, New York.
Pope Benedict, in a homily at the start of Lent last year, urged Christians to set out on the season "confidently and joyfully." The 40 days before Easter, he said, are not really about the dark side of life, but are a gift of God.

"This strong season of the liturgical year is a favorable time which is granted to us so that we may attend more closely to our conversion, listen more intensely to the word of God and intensify our prayer and penance," the pope said in a homily at St. Sabina Church in Rome. The Lenten spiritual trek, the pope explained, leads one to go more generously to the aid of needy neighbors; that's a way of living out the paschal mystery.

"It's kind of like the church's retreat," says Providence Sister Jeremy Gallet, director of the archdiocese's Office of Worship.  

Lent began in the 4th Century as a two-day grief-inspired fast for Good Friday and Easter. After the Council of Nicea in 325, the period was extended to 40 days, echoing the time spent fasting in the desert by Jesus, Moses and the prophet Elijah.

In the early church, Lent was in large part a preparation time for catechumens — those becoming Christian. Catechumens (the word derives from church Latin and Greek for "one being instructed") would fast for 40 days as a way to cleanse away worldly distraction and open themselves more fully to the Holy Spirit. Fasting was similar to the current Muslim practice during Ramadan — one full meal per day, taken in the evening.  

The faithful of the church would prepare for Easter along with the catechumens.
"It was a time to reflect and be more spare in the way one lives, more focused," says Sister Jeremy.

Before the sixth century or so, there was no confession as we know it. Most Christians would work out their sins with prayer, fasting and works of charity. Later, Lent became a time for penitents to be reconciled to the church publicly. They went through a process much like catechumens.

Reconciliation then became a private matter for a long time until the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on Liturgy sought to make penance visible and public. The focus on charity should be strong, the council said.

Sister Jeremy explains that there are two main goals of Lent: All are to recall their baptism or prepare for it and the faithful should get ready for Easter with prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

"The fasting that all do together on Fridays is but a sign of the daily Lenten discipline of individuals and households: fasting for certain periods of time, fasting from certain foods, but also fasting from other things and activities," says the U.S. bishops' Office for Divine Worship.

The giving of alms is an effort to share the world equally — not only through the distribution of money, but through the sharing of time and talents.

"The key to fruitful observance of these practices is to recognize their link to baptismal renewal," the bishops' office says. "We are called not just to abstain from sin during Lent, but to true conversion of our hearts and minds as followers of Christ. We recall those waters in which we were baptized into Christ's death, died to sin and evil, and began new life in Christ."

During Lent, Catholics are called to renew their baptismal commitment, inspired by others preparing to enter the church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
Each year on Holy Saturday during the Easter Vigil,  thousands of men and women are received into the Catholic Church in the United States. Parishes welcome these new members through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.

Early in Lent in western Oregon, and throughout the U.S., gatherings called rites of election include the enrollment of names of all those seeking baptism at the coming Easter Vigil. Some of the rites are held at St. Mary Cathedral, while others happen at churches in corners of the state far from Portland. The catechumens publicly express their desire for baptism to the archbishop. Their names are recorded in a book and they are called "the elect."

The days of Lent are the final period of purification and enlightenment leading up to the Easter Vigil.