St. Scholastica, twin sister of the venerable Father, St. Benedict, had been consecrated to God in early childhood, as St. Gregory tells us in the second book of his Dialogue used to visit with Benedict once a year. On these occasions he would go down to meet her in a house belonging to the monastery a short distance from the entrance. On a certain day, a sudden downpour of rain, obtained from God by Scholastica just as darkness was setting in, made it impossible for her venerable brother to leave. And so they spent the entire night together and both of them derived great profit from the holy thoughts they exchanged about the interior life. The next morning Scholastica returned to her convent and Benedict to his monastery. Three days later he stood in his room looking up toward the sky, he beheld his sister’s soul leaving her body and entering the heavenly court in the form of a dove. Then Benedict sent some of his brethren to bury her body in the tomb he had prepared for himself. The bodies of these two were now to share a common resting place, just as in their souls had always been one in God. 1960 Roman Breviary. They are buried at Monte Casino Italy.
My dear brethren,
According to an ancient and salutary tradition in the Church, on the occasion of the beginning of Lent, I address these words to you in order to encourage you to enter into this penitential season wholeheartedly, with the dispositions willed by the Church and to accomplish the purpose for which the Church prescribes it.
If I look in books from the early part of this century, I find that they indicate three purposes for which the Church has prescribed this penitential time:
- first, in order to curb the concupiscence of the flesh;
- then, to facilitate the elevation of our souls toward divine realities;
- finally, to make satisfaction for our sins.
Our Lord gave us the example during His life, here on earth: pray and do penance. However, Our Lord, being free from concupiscence and sin, did penance and made satisfaction for our sins, thus showing us that our penance may be beneficial not only for ourselves but also for others.
Pray and do penance. Do penance in order to pray better, in order to draw closer to Almighty God. This is what all the saints have done, and this is that of which all the messages of the Blessed Virgin remind us.
Would we dare to say that this necessity is less important in our day and age than in former times? On the contrary, we can and we must affirm that today, more than ever before, prayer and penance are necessary because everything possible has been done to diminish and denigrate these two fundamental elements of Christian life.
Never before has the world sought to satisfy—without any limit, the disordered instincts of the flesh, even to the point of the murder of millions of innocent, unborn children. One would come to believe that society has no other reason for existence except to give the greatest material standard of living to all men in order that they should not be deprived of material goods.
Thus we can see that such a society would be opposed to what the Church prescribes. In these times, when even Churchmen align themselves with the spirit of this world, we witness the disappearance of prayer and penance-particularly in their character of reparation for sins and obtaining pardon for faults. Few there are today who love to recite Psalm 50, the Miserere, and who say with the psalmist, Peccatum meum contra me est semper—”My sin is always before me.” How can a Christian remove the thought of sin if the image of the crucifix is always before his eyes?
At the Council the bishops requested such a diminution of fast and abstinence that the prescriptions have practically disappeared. We must recognize the fact that this disappearance is a consequence of the ecumenical and Protestant spirit which denies the necessity of our participation for the application of the merits of Our Lord to each one of us for the remission of our sins and the restoration of our divine affiliation [i.e., our character as adoptive sons of God].
- In the past the commandments of the Church provided for:
- an obligatory fast on all days of Lent with the exception of Sundays, for the three Ember Days and for many Vigils;
- abstinence was for all Fridays of the year, the Saturdays of Lent and, in numerous dioceses, all the Saturdays of the year.
What remains of these prescriptions—the fast for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstinence for Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent.
One wonders at the motives for such a drastic diminution. Who are obliged to observe the fast?—adults from age 21 to 60 [here in the USA, the minimum age is 18 years old—Ed.]. And who are obliged to observe abstinence?—all the faithful from the age of 7 years.
What does fasting mean? To fast means to take only one (full) meal a day to which one may add two collations (or small meals), one in the morning, one in the evening which, when combined, do not equal a full meal.[The archbishop is referring to the European order of meals; in the United States though, dinner is usually the evening meal—Ed.]
What is meant by abstinence? By abstinence is meant that one abstains from meat.
The faithful who have a true spirit of faith and who profoundly understand the motives of the Church which have been mentioned above, will wholeheartedly accomplish not only the light prescriptions of today but, entering into the spirit of Our Lord and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, will endeavor to make reparation for the sins which they have committed and for the sins of their family, their neighbors, friends and fellow citizens.
It is for this reason that they will add to the actual prescriptions. These additional penances might be to fast for all Fridays of Lent, abstinence from all alcoholic beverages, abstinence from television, or other similar sacrifices. They will make an effort to pray more, to assist more frequently at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, to recite the rosary, and not to miss evening prayers with the family. They will detach themselves from their superfluous material goods in order to aid the seminaries, help establish schools, help their priests adequately furnish the chapels and to help establish novitiates for nuns and brothers.
The prescriptions of the Church do not concern fast and abstinence alone but also of the obligation of the Paschal Communion (Easter Duty). Here is what the Vicar of the Diocese of Sion, in Switzerland, recommended to the faithful of that diocese on February 20, 1919:
- During Lent, the pastors will have the Stations of the Cross twice a week; one day for the children of the schools and another day for the other parishioners. After the Stations of the Cross, they will recite the Litany of the Sacred Heart.
- During Passion Week, which is to say, the week before Palm Sunday, there will be a Triduum in all parish churches, Instruction, Litany of the Sacred Heart in the Presence of the Blessed Sacrament, Benediction. In these instructions the pastors will simply and clearly remind their parishioners of the principal conditions to receive the Sacrament of Penance worthily.
- The time during which one may fulfill the Easter Duty has been set for all parishes from Passion Sunday to the first Sunday after Easter.
Why should these directives no longer be useful today? Let us profit from this salutary time during the course of which Our Lord is accustomed to dispense grace abundantly. Let us not imitate the foolish virgins who having no oil in their lamps found the door of the bridegroom’s house closed and this terrible response: Nescio vos—”I know you not.” Blessed are they who have the spirit of poverty for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The spirit of poverty means the spirit of detachment from things of this world.
Blessed are they who weep for they shall be consoled. Let us think of Jesus in the Garden of Olives who wept for our sins. It is henceforth for us to weep for our sins and for those of our brethren.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for holiness for they shall be satisfied. Holiness—sanctity is attained by means of the Cross, penance and sacrifice. If we truly seek perfection then we must follow the Way of the Cross.
May we, during this Lenten Season, hear the call of Jesus and Mary and engage ourselves to follow them in this crusade of prayer and penance.
May our prayers, our supplications, and our sacrifices obtain from heaven the grace that those in places of responsibility in the Church return to her true and holy traditions, which is the only solution to revive and reflourish the institutions of the Church again.
Let us love to recite the conclusion of the Te Deum: In te Doming, speravi; non confundar in aeternum—”In Thee, O Lord, I have hoped. I will not be confounded in eternity.”
+ Marcel Lefebvre
February 14, 1982
St. Cyril of Alexandria was the nephew of Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria, and even as a young man gave evidence of unusual brilliance. When Theophilus died, Cyril succeeded to his see and, “becoming from the heart a pattern to the flock,” gained glory as the best of shepherds. He shone in a special way in his zeal for the integrity of the Catholic faith against Nestorius, the bishop of Constantinople, who asserted that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary was a man only and not as God, and that divinity had been added to Him for His merits. After trying in vain to persuade Nestorius of the truth, Cyril denounced him to pope St. Celestine. As the delegate of this pope he presided over many sessions of the Council of Ephesus. In the council the Nestorian heresy was completely condemned and Nestorius himself deposed from his see, while the Catholic doctrine was proclaimed that in Christ there is but one Person and that Person divine, and that the glorious Virgin Mary is the Mother of God. Solicitous only for the faith and, as a result, enduring many things, Cyril accomplished great works for God’s Church and published many writings. Finally he died a holy death in the year 444, the thirty-second year of his episcopate. 1960 Roman Breviary
The Forty Days’ Fast, which we call Lent [In most languages the name given to this Fast expresses the number of the day, Forty. But our word Lent signifies the Spring-Fast; for Lenten-Tide, in the ancient English-Saxon language, was the season of Spring. Translator.], is the Church’s preparation for Easter, and was instituted at the very commencement of Christianity. Our Blessed Lord himself sanctioned it by his fasting forty days and forty nights in the desert; and though he would not impose it on the world by an express commandment, (which, then, could not have been open to the power of dispensation,) yet he showed plainly enough by his own example, that Fasting, which God had so frequently ordered in the Old Law, was to be also practised by the Children of the New.
The Disciples of St. John the Baptist came, one day, to Jesus, and said to him: Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but thy Disciples do not fast? And Jesus said to them: Can the children of the bridegroom mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast. [St Matth. ix. 14,15].
Hence, we find it mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, how the Disciples of our Lord, after the Foundation of the Church, applied themselves to Fasting. In their Epistles, also, they recommended it to the Faithful. Nor could it be otherwise. Though the divine mysteries, whereby our Saviour wrought our redemption, have been consummated, – yet are we still Sinners: and where there is sin, there must be expiation.
The Apostles, therefore, legislated for our weakness, by instituting, at the very commencement of the Christian Church, that the Solemnity of Easter should be preceded by a universal Fast; and it was only natural, that they should have made this period of Penance to consist of Forty Days, seeing that our Divine Master had consecrated that number by his own Fast. St. Jerome [Epist. xxvii. ad Marcellam], St. Leo the Great [Serm. ii, v, ix. de Quadragesima], St. Cyril of Alexandria [Homil. Paschal.], St. Isidore of Seville [De Ecclesiast. Officiis, lib vi., cap. xix.], and others of the holy Fathers, assure us that Lent was instituted by the Apostles, although, at the commencement, there was not any uniform way of observing it.
We have already seen, in our Septuagesima, that the Orientals begin their Lent much earlier than the Latins, owing to their custom of never fasting on Saturdays, (or, in some places, even on Thursdays). They are, consequently, obliged, in order to make up the forty days, to begin the Lenten Fast on the Monday preceding our Sexagesima Sunday. These are the kind of exceptions, which prove the rule. We have also shown, how the Latin Church, – which, even so late as the 6th Century, kept only thirty-six fasting days during the six weeks of Lent, (for the Church has never allowed Sundays to be kept as days of fast,) – thought proper to add, later on, the last four days of Quinquagesima, in order that her Lent might contain exactly Forty Days of Fast.
The whole subject of Lent has been so often and so fully treated, that we shall abridge, as much as possible, the History we are now giving. The nature of our Work forbids us to do more, than insert what is essential for the entering into the spirit of each Season. God grant, that we may succeed in showing to the Faithful the importance of the holy institution of Lent! Its influence on the spiritual life, and on the very salvation, of each one among us, can never be over-rated.
Lent, then, is a time consecrated, in an especial manner, to penance; and this penance is mainly practised by Fasting. Fasting is an abstinence, which man voluntarily imposes upon himself, as an expiation for sin, and which, during Lent, is practised in obedience to the general law of the Church. According to the actual discipline of the Western Church, the Fast of Lent is not more rigorous than that prescribed for the Vigils of certain Feasts, and for the Ember Days; but it is kept up for Forty successive Days, with the single interruption of the intervening Sundays.
We deem it unnecessary to show the importance and advantages of Fasting. The Sacred Scriptures, both of the Old and New Testament, are filled with the praises of this holy practice. The traditions of every nation of the world testify the universal veneration, in which it has ever been held; for there is not a people, nor a religion, how much soever it may have lost the purity of primitive traditions, which is not impressed with this conviction, – that man may appease his God by subjecting his body to penance.
St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great, make the remark, that the commandment put upon our First Parents, in the earthly paradise, was one of Abstinence; and that it was by their not exercising this virtue, that they brought every kind of evil upon themselves and us their children. The life of privation, which the king of creation had thenceforward to lead on the earth, – (for the earth was to yield him nothing of its own natural growth, save thorns and thistles,) – was the clearest possible exemplification of the law of penance, imposed by the anger of God on rebellious man.
During the two thousand and more years, which preceded the Deluge, men had no other food than the fruits of the earth, and these were only got by the toil of hard labour. But when God, as we have already observed, mercifully shortened man’s life, (that so he might have less time and power for sin), – he permitted him to eat the flesh of animals, as an additional nourishment in that state of deteriorated strength. It was then, also, that Noah, guided by a divine inspiration, extracted the juice of the grape, which thus formed a second stay for human debility.
Fasting, then, is the abstaining from such nourishments as these, which were permitted for the support of bodily strength. And firstly, it consisted in abstinence from flesh-meat, because it is a food that was given to man by God, out of condescension to his weakness, and not as one absolutely essential for the maintenance of life. Its privation, greater or less according to the regulations of the Church, is essential to the very notion of Fasting. Thus, whilst in many countries, the use of eggs, milk-meats, and even dripping and lard, is tolerated, – the abstaining from flesh-meat is everywhere maintained, as being essential to Fasting. For many centuries, eggs and milk-meats were not allowed, because they come under the class of animal food: even to this day, they are forbidden in the Eastern Churches, and are only allowed in the Latin Church by virtue of an annual dispensation. The precept of abstaining from flesh-meat is so essential to Lent, that even on Sundays, when the Fasting is interrupted, Abstinence is an obligation, binding even on those who are dispensed from the fasts of the week, unless there be a special dispensation granted for eating meat on the Sundays.
In the early ages of Christianity, Fasting included also the abstaining from Wine, as we learn from St. Cyril of Jerusalem [Catech. iv], St. Basil [Homil. i. De Jejunio], St. John Chrysostom [Homil. iv. Ad populum Antioch.], Theophilus of Alexandria [Litt. Pasch, iii], and others. In the West, this custom soon fell into disuse. The Eastern Christians kept it up much longer, but even with them it has ceased to be considered as obligatory.
Lastly, Fasting includes the depriving ourselves of some portion of our ordinary food, inasmuch as it only allows the taking of one meal during the day. Though the modifications introduced from age to age in the discipline of Lent, are very numerous, yet the points we have here mentioned belong to the very essence of Fasting, as is evident from the universal practice of the Church.
It was the custom with the Jews, in the Old Law, not to take the one meal, allowed on fasting days, till sun-set. The Christian Church adopted the same custom. It was scrupulously practised, for many centuries, even in our Western countries. But, about the 9th century, some relaxation began to be introduced in the Latin Church. Thus, we have a Capitularium of Theodulph, Bishop of Orleans, (who lived at that period,) protesting against the practice, which some had, of taking their repast at the hour of None, that is to say, about three o’clock in the afternoon [Capitul. xxxix. Labb. Conc. tom. viii.]. The relaxation, however, gradually spread; for, in the 10th century, we find the celebrated Ratherius, Bishop of Verona, acknowledging, that the Faithful had permission to break their fast at the hour of None [Serm. 1, De Quadrages. D’Archery. Spicilegium, tom. ii.]. We meet with a sort of reclamation made as late as the 11th century, by a Council held at Rouen, which forbids the Faithful to take their repast before Vespers shall have begun to be sung in the Church, at the end of None [Orderic Vital. Histor., lib. iv.]; but this shows us, that the custom had already begun of anticipating the hour of Vespers, in order that the Faithful might take their meal earlier in the day.
Up to within a short period before this time, it had been the custom not to celebrate Mass, on days of Fasting, until the Office of None had been sung, (which was about three o’clock in the afternoon,) – and, also, not to sing Vespers till sun-set. When the discipline regarding Fasting began to relax, the Church still retained the order of her Offices, which had been handed down from the earliest times. The only change she made, was to anticipate the hour for Vespers; and this entailed the celebrating Mass and None much earlier in the day;- so early, indeed, that, when custom had so prevailed as to authorise the Faithful taking their repast at mid-day, all the Offices, even the Vespers, were over before that hour.
In the 12th century, the custom of breaking one’s fast at the hour of None everywhere prevailed, as we learn from Hugh of Saint-Victor [In regul. S. Augustini, cap.iii]; and in the 13th century, it was sanctioned by the teaching of the School-men. Alexander Hales declares most expressly, that such a custom was lawful [Summa, Part. iv. Quaest. 28, art. 2.]; and St. Thomas of Aquin, is equally decided in the same opinion [2a 2ae Q. 147, a. 7].
But even the fasting till None, (i.e. three o’clock,) was found too severe; and a still further relaxation was considered to be necessary. At the close of the 13th century, we have the celebrated Franciscan, Richard of Middleton, teaching, that they who break their fast at the Hour of Sext, (i.e. mid-day,) are not to be considered as transgressing the precept of the Church; and the reason he gives, is this: that the custom of doing so had already prevailed in many places, and that fasting does not consist so much in the lateness of the hour at which the faithful take their refreshment, as in their taking but one meal during the twenty-four hours [In iv. Dist. xv., art. 3., quaest. 8].
The 14th century gave weight, both by universal custom and theological authority, to the opinion held by Richard of Middleton. It will, perhaps, suffice if we quote the learned Dominican, Durandus, Bishop of Meaux, who says, that there can be no doubt as to the lawfulness of taking one’s repast at mid-day; and he adds, that such was then the custom observed by the Pope, and Cardinals, and even the Religious Orders [In iv. Dist. xv., Quaest. 9., art 7]. We cannot, therefore, be surprised at finding this opinion maintained, in the 15th century, by such grave authors as St. Antoninus, Cardinal Cajetan, and others. Alexander Hales and St. Thomas sought to prevent the relaxation going beyond the Hour of None; but their zeal was disappointed, and the present discipline was established, we might almost say, during their life-time.
But, whilst this relaxation of taking the repast so early in the day as twelve o’clock rendered fasting less difficult in one way, it made it more severe in another. The body grew exhausted by the labours of the long second half of the twenty-four hours; and the meal, that formerly closed the day, and satisfied the cravings of fatigue, had been already taken. It was found necessary to grant some refreshment for the evening, and it was called a Collation. The word was taken from the Benedictine Rule, which, for long centuries before this change in the Lenten observance, had allowed a Monastic Collation. St. Benedict’s Rule prescribed a great many Fasts, over and above the ecclesiastical Fast of Lent; but it made this great distinction between the two:- that whilst Lent obliged the Monks, as well as the rest of the Faithful, to abstain from food till sunset, these monastic fasts allowed the repast to be taken at the hour of None.But, as the Monks had heavy manual labour during the summer and autumn months, (which was the very time when these Fasts “till None” occurred several days of each week, and, indeed, every day from the 14th of September;) the Abbot was allowed by the Rule to grant his Religious permission to take a small measure of wine before Compline, as a refreshment after the fatigues of the afternoon. It was taken by all at one and the same time, during the evening reading, which was called Conference, (in Latin, Collatio,) because it was mostly taken from the celebrated Conferences (Collationes) of Cassian. Hence, this evening monastic refreshment got the name of Collation.
We find the Assembly, or Chapter of Aix-la-Chapelle, held in 817, extending this indulgence even to the Lenten fast, on account of the great fatigue entailed by the Offices, which the Monks had to celebrate during this holy Season. But experience showed, that unless something solid were allowed to be taken together with the wine, the evening Collation would be an injury to the health of many of the Religious; accordingly, towards the close of the 14th, or the beginning of the 15th century, the usage was introduced of taking a morsel of bread with the Collation-beverage.
As a matter of course, these mitigations of the ancient severity of Fasting soon found their way from the cloister into the world. The custom of taking something to drink, on Fasting Days, out of the time of the repast, was gradually established; and even so early as the 13th century, we have St. Thomas of Aquin discussing the question, whether or no drink is to be considered as a breaking of the precept of Fasting [In iv. Quaest. cxlvii. art, 6]. He answers in the negative; and yet he does not allow that anything solid may be taken with the drink. But when it had become the universal practice, (as it did in the latter part of the 13th century, and still more fixedly during the whole of the 14th,) that the one meal on Fasting Days was taken at mid-day, a mere beverage was found in sufficient to give support, and there was added to it bread, herbs, fruits, &c. Such was the practice, both in the world and the cloister. It was, however, clearly understood by all, that these eatables were not to be taken in such quantity as to turn the Collation into a second meal.
Thus did the decay of piety, and the general deterioration of bodily strength among the people of the Western nations, infringe on the primitive observance of Fasting. To make our history of these humiliating changes anything like complete, we must mention one more relaxation. For several centuries, abstinence from flesh-meat included likewise the prohibition of every article of food that belonged to what is called the animal kingdom, with the single exception of Fish, which, on account of its cold nature, as also for several mystical reasons, founded on the Sacred Scriptures, was always permitted to be taken by those who fasted. Every sort of milk-meat was forbidden; and in Rome, even to this day, butter and cheese are not permitted during Lent, except on those days whereon permission to eat meat is granted.
Dating from the 9th century, the custom of eating milk-meats during Lent began to be prevalent in Western Europe, more especially in Germany and the northern countries. The Council of Kedlimburg, held in the 11th century, made an effort to put a stop to the practice as an abuse; but without effect [Labbe, Concil., tom. x.]. These Churches maintained that they were in the right, and defended their custom by the dispensations, (though, in reality, only temporary ones,) granted them by several Sovereign Pontiffs: the dispute ended by their being left peaceably to enjoy what they claimed. The Churches of France resisted this innovation up to the 16th century; but in the 17th, they too yielded, and milk-meats were taken during Lent, throughout the whole Kingdom. As some reparation for this breach of ancient discipline, the City of Paris instituted a solemn rite, whereby she wished to signify her regret at being obliged to such a relaxation. On Quinquagesima Sunday, all the different Parishes went in procession to the Church of Notre Dame. The Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, and Augustinians, took part in the procession. The Metropolitan Chapter, and the four Parishes that were subject to it, held, on the same day, a Station in the court-yard of the Palace, and sang an Anthem before the Relic of the True Cross, which was exposed in the Sainte Chapelle. These pious usages, which were intended to remind the people of the difference between the past and the present observance of Lent, continued to be practised till the Revolution.
But this grant for the eating milk-meats during Lent, did not include eggs. Here, the ancient discipline was maintained, at least this far, – that eggs were not allowed, save by a dispensation, which had to be renewed each year. In Rome they are only allowed on days when Flesh-meat may be taken. In other places, they are allowed on some days, and on others, especially during Holy Week, are forbidden. Invariably do we find the Church, seeking, out of anxiety for the spiritual advantage of her Children, to maintain all she can of those penitential observances, whereby they may satisfy Divine Justice. It was with this intention, that Pope Benedict the Fourteenth, alarmed at the excessive facility wherewith dispensation were then obtained, renewed, by a solemn Constitution, (dated June 10, 1745,) the prohibition of eating fish and meat, at the same meal, on fasting days.
The same Pope, whose spirit of moderation has never been called in question, had no sooner ascended the Papal Throne, than he addressed an Encyclical Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic world, expressing his heartfelt grief at seeing the great relaxation that was introduced among the Faithful by indiscreet and unnecessary dispensations. The Letter is dated May 30th, 1741. We extract from it the following passage: “The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it, we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the Cross of Christ. By it, we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it, we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted, but that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.” [Constitution: Non ambigimus.]
More than a hundred years have elapsed since this solemn warning of the Vicar of Christ was given to the world; and during that time, the relaxation, he inveighed against, has gone on gradually increasing. How few Christians do we meet, who are strict observers of Lent, even in its present mild form! The long list of general Dispensations granted, each year, by the Bishops to their flocks, would lead us to suppose that the immense majority of the Faithful would be scrupulously exact in the fulfilment of the Fasting and Abstinence still remaining; but is such the case? And must there not result from this ever-growing spirit of immortification, a general effeminacy of character, which will lead, at last, to frightful social disorders? The sad predictions of Pope Benedict the Fourteenth are but too truly verified. Those nations, among whose people the spirit and practice of penance are extinct, are heaping against themselves the wrath of God, and provoking his justice to destroy them by one or other of these scourges, – civil discord, or conquest. In our own country, there is an inconsistency, which must strike every thinking mind:- the observance of the Lord’s Day, on the one side; the national inobservance of days of penance and fasting, on the other. – The first is admirable, and, (if we except puritanical extravagances,) be speaks a deep-rooted sense of religion: but the second is one of the worst presages for the future. No:- the word of God is too plain: unless we do penance, we shall perish [St. Luke, xiii. 3]. But, if our ease-loving and sensual generation were to return, like the Ninivites, to the long-neglected way of penance and expiation, – who knows, but that the arm of God which is already raised to strike us, may give us blessing, and not chastisement?
Let us resume our History, and seek our edification in studying the fervour wherewith the Christians of former times used to observe Lent. We will first offer to our readers a few instances of the manner in which Dispensations were given.
In the 13th century, the Archbishop of Braga applied to the reigning Pontiff, Innocent the Third, asking him, what compensation he ought to require of his people, who, in consequence of a dearth of the ordinary articles of food, had been necessitated to eat meat during the Lent? He at the same time, consulted the Pontiff as to how he was to act in the case of the sick, who asked for a dispensation from abstinence. The answer given by Innocent, which is inserted in the Canon Law [Decretal., lib. iii. cap. Concilium; de Jejunio. Tit. xlvi.], is, as we might expect, full of considerateness and charity; but we learn from this fact, that such was then the respect for the law of Lent, that it was considered necessary to apply to the Sovereign Pontiff, when dispensations were sought for. We find many such instances in the history of the Church.
Wenceslaus, King of Bohemia, being seized with a malady, which rendered it dangerous to his health to take Lenten diet, – he applied, in the year 1297, to Pope Boniface the Eighth, for leave to eat meat. The Pontiff commissioned two Cistercian Abbots to enquire into the real state of the Prince’s health: they were to grant the dispensation sought for, if they found it necessary; but on the following conditions: that the King had not bound himself by a vow, for life, to fast during Lent; that the Fridays, Saturdays, and the Vigil of St. Matthias, were to be excluded from the dispensation; and, lastly, that the King was not to take his meal in the presence of others, and was to observe moderation in what he took [Raynaldi, Ad ann. 1297].
In the 14th century, we meet with two Briefs of dispensation, granted by Clement the Sixth, in 1351, to John, King of France, and to his Queen consort. In the first, the Pope, – taking into consideration, that during the wars in which the King is engaged he frequently finds himself in places where fish can with difficulty be procured, – grants to the Confessor of the King the power of allowing, both to his majesty and his suite, the use of meat on days of abstinence, excepting, however, the whole of Lent, all Fridays of the year, and certain Vigils; provided, moreover, that neither he, nor those who accompany him, are under a vow of perpetual abstinence [D’Archery. Spicilegium. tom. iv.]. In the second Brief the same Pope, replying to the petition made him by the King for a dispensation from fasting, again commissions his Majesty’s present and future Confessors, to dispense both the King and his Queen, after having consulted with their Physicians [D’Archery. Spicilegium. tom. iv.].
A few years later, that is, in 1376, Pope Gregory the Eleventh sent a Brief in favour of Charles 5th, King of France, and of Jane, his Queen. In this Brief, he delegates to their Confessor the power of allowing them the use of eggs and milk-meats, during Lent, should their Physician, think they stand in need of such dispensation; but he tells both Physicians and Confessor, that he puts it upon their consciences, and that they will have to answer before God for their decision. The same permission is granted also to their servants and cooks, but only as far as it is needed for their tasting the food to be served to their Majesties.
The 15th century, also, furnishes us with instances of this applying to the Holy See for Lenten dispensations. We will cite the Brief addressed by Xystus the Fourth, in 1483, to James 3rd, King of Scotland; in which he grants him permission to eat meat on days of abstinence, provided his Confessor consider the dispensation needed [Raynald, Ad ann. 1484]. In the following century, we have Julius the Second granting a like dispensation to John, King of Denmark, and to his Queen Christina [Ibid. Ad ann. 1505]; and, a few years later, Clement the Seventh giving one to the Emperor Charles the Fifth, [Ibid. Ad ann. 1524], and, again, to Henry the Second of Navarre, and to his Queen Margaret [Ibid. Ad ann. 1533].
Thus were Princes themselves treated, three centuries ago, when they sought for a dispensation from the sacred law of Lent. What are we to think of the present indifference wherewith it is kept? What comparison can be made between the Christians of former times, who, deeply impressed with the fear of God’s judgments and with the spirit of penance, cheerfully went through these forty days of mortification, – and those of our own days, when love of pleasure and self-indulgence is for ever lessening man’s horror for sin? Where there is little or no fear of having to penance ourselves for sin, there is so much the less restraint to keep us from committing it.
Where now that simple and innocent joy at Easter, which our forefathers used to show, when, after their severe fast of Lent, they partook of substantial and savoury food? The peace, which long and sharp mortification ever brings to the conscience, gave them the capability, not to say the right, of being light-hearted as they returned to the comforts of life, which they had denied themselves, in order to spend forty days in penance, recollection, and retirement from the world. This leads us to mention some further details, which will assist the Catholic reader to understand what Lent was in the Ages of Faith.
It was a season, during which, not only all amusements and theatrical entertainments were forbidden by the civil authority [It was the Emperor Justinian who passed this law, as we learn from Photius; Nomocanon. tit. vii., cap. i. It is still in force in Rome.], but when even the Law Courts were closed; and this, in order to secure that peace and calm of heart, which is so indispensable for the Soul’s self-examination, and reconciliation with her offended Maker. As early as the year 380, Gratian and Theodosius enacted, that Judges should suspend all lawsuits and proceedings, during the forty days preceding Easter (Cod. Theodos., lib. ix., tit. xxxv., leg. 4.]. The Theodosian Code contains several regulations of this nature; and we find councils, held in the 9th century, urging the Kings of that period to enforce the one we have mentioned, seeing that it had been sanctioned by the Canons, and approved of by the Fathers of the Church [Labbe, Concil., tom. vii. and ix.]. These admirable Christian traditions have long since fallen into disuse in the countries of Europe; but they are still kept up among the Turks, who, during the forty days of their Ramadan,forbid all law proceedings. What a humiliation for us Christians!
Hunting, too, was for many ages considered as forbidden during Lent;- the spirit of the holy season was too sacred to admit such exciting and noisy sport. The Pope, St. Nicholas the First, in the 9th century, forbade it the Bulgarians [Ad Consultat. Bulgarorum. Labbe, Concil., tom. viii.], who had been recently converted to the Christian Faith. Even so late as the 13th Century, we find St. Raymund of Pegnafort teaching, that they who, during Lent, take part in the chase, if it be accompanied by certain circumstances, which he specifies, cannot be excused from sin [Summ. cas. Poenit., lib. iii, tit. xxix. De laps. et disp., §1]. This prohibition has long since been a dead letter; but St. Charles Borromeo, in one of his Synods, re-established it in his province of Milan.
But we cannot be surprised that Hunting should be forbidden during Lent, when we remember, that, in those Christian times, War itself, which is sometimes so necessary for the welfare of a nation, was suspended during this holy Season. In the 4th century, we have the Emperor Constantine the Great enacting, that no military exercises should be allowed on Sundays and Fridays, out of respect to our Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered and rose again on these two days, as also in order not to disturb the peace and repose needed for the due celebration of such sublime mysteries [Euseb. Constant. vita, lib. iv.. cap. xviii. et xix.]. The discipline of the Latin Church, in the 9th century, enforced everywhere the suspension of war, during the whole of Lent, except in cases of necessity [Labbe, Concil. tom. vii]. The instructions of Pope St. Nicholas the First to the Bulgarians recommend the same observance [Ibid. tom. x]; and we learn, from a letter of St. Gregory the Seventh to Desiderius, Abbot of Monte Cassino, that it was kept up in the 11th century [Ibid. tom. x]. We have an instance of its being practised in our own country, in the 12th century, when, as William of Malmesbury relates, the Empress Matilda, Countess of Anjou, and daughter of King Henry, was contesting the right of succession to the throne against Stephen, Count of Boulogne. The two armies were in sight of each other;- but an armistice was demanded and observed, for it was the Lent of 1143 [Willhelm. Malmesbur. Hist. nov. no. 30].
Our readers have heard, no doubt, of the admirable institution called God’s Truce, whereby the Church, in the 11th century, succeeded in preventing much bloodshed. It was a law that forebade the carrying arms from Wednesday evening till Monday morning, throughout the year. It was sanctioned by the authority of Popes and Councils, and enforced by all Christian Princes. It was a continuing, during four days of each week of the year, the Lenten discipline of the suspension of war. Our saintly King, Edward the Confessor, gave a still greater extension to it, by passing a law, (which was confirmed by his successor, William the Conqueror,) that God’s Truce should be observed, without cessation, from the beginning of Advent to the Octave of Easter, from the Ascension to the Whitsuntide Octave; on all the Ember Days; on the Vigils of all feasts; and, lastly, every week, from None on Wednesday till Monday morning, which had been already prescribed [Labbe, Concil. tom. ix.].
In the Council of Clermont, held in 1095, Pope Urban the Second, after drawing up the regulations for the Crusades, used his authority in extending the God’s Truce, as it was then observed during Lent. His decree, which was renewed in the Council held the following year at Rouen, was to this effect: that all war proceedings should be suspended from Ash Wednesday to the Monday after the Octave of Pentecost, and on all Vigils and Feasts of the Blessed Virgin and the Apostles, over and above what was already regulated for each week, that is, from Wednesday evening to Monday morning [Orderic Vital. Hist. Eccles. lib. ix.].
Thus did the world testify its respect for the holy observances of Lent, and borrow some of its wisest institutions from the seasons and feasts of the liturgical year. The influence of this Forty-Days’ penance was great, too, on each individual. It renewed man’s energies, gave him fresh vigour in battling with his animal instincts, and, by the restraint it put upon sensuality, ennobled the soul. Yes, there was restraint everywhere; and the present discipline of the Church, which forbids the Solemnisation of Marriage, during Lent, reminds Christians of that holy continency, which, for many ages, was observed during the whole Forty Days as a precept, and of which the most sacred of the liturgical books – the Missal – still retains the recommendation [Missale Romanum. Missa pro sponso et sponsa].
It is with reluctance that we close our history of Lent, and leave untouched so many other interesting details. For instance, what treasures we could have laid open to our readers from the Lenten usages of the Eastern Churches, which have retained so much of the primitive discipline! We cannot, however, resist devoting our last page to the following particulars.
We mentioned in the preceding Volume, that the Sunday we call Septuagesima, is called, by the Greeks, Prophoné, because the opening of Lent is proclaimed on that day. The Monday following it is counted as the first day of the next week, which is Apocreos, the name they give to the Sunday which closes that week, and which is our Sexagesima Sunday. The Greek Church begins abstinence from flesh-meat with this week. Then, on the morrow, Monday, commences the week called Tyrophagos, which ends with the Sunday of that name, and which corresponds to our Quinquagesima. White-meats are allowed during that week. Finally, the morrow is the first day of the first week of Lent, and the Fast begins, with all its severity, on that Monday, whilst, in the Latin Church, it is deferred to the Wednesday.
During the whole of Lent, (at least, of the Lent preceding Easter,) milk-meats, eggs, and even fish, are forbidden. The only food permitted to be eaten with bread, is vegetables, honey, and, for those who live near the sea, shell-fish. For many centuries, wine might not be taken: but it is now permitted: and on the Annunciation and Palm Sunday, a dispensation is granted for eating fish.
Besides the Lent preparatory to the feast of Easter, the Greeks keep three others in the year: that which is called of the Apostles, which lasts from the Octave of Pentecost to the feast of Saints Peter and Paul; that of the Virgin Mary,which begins on the first of August, and ends with the Vigil of the Assumption; and lastly, the Lent of preparation for Christmas, which consists of forty days. The fasting and abstinence of these three Lents are not quite so severe as those observed during the great Lent. The other if Christian nations of the East also observe several Lents, and more rigidly than the Greeks; but all these details would lead us too far. We, therefore, pass on to the mysteries which are included in this holy season.
“St. John was born of very pious and noble parents, at Faucon, on the borders of Provence, June the 24th, 1169, and was baptized John, in honour of St. John the Baptist. His mother dedicated him to God by a vow from his infancy. His father Euphemius sent him to Aix, where he learned grammar, fencing, riding, and other exercises fit for a young nobleman. But his chief attention was to advance in virtue. He gave the poor a considerable part of his money his parents sent him for his own use; he visited the hospital every Friday, assisting the poor sick, dressing and cleansing their sores, and affording them all the comfort in his power.
Being returned home, he begged his father’s leave to continue the pious exercises he had begun, and retired to a little hermitage not far from Faucon, with the view of living at a distance from the world, and united to God alone by mortification and prayer. But finding his solitude interrupted by the frequent visits of his friends, he desired his father’s consent to go to Paris to study divinity, which he easily obtained. He went through these more sublime studies with extraordinary success, and proceeded doctor of divinity with uncommon applause, though his modesty gave him a reluctancy to that honour. He was soon after ordained priest, and said his first mass in the Bishop of Paris’s chapel, at which the bishop himself, Maurice de Sully, the abbots of St. Victor and of St. Genevieve, and the rector of the university assisted; admiring the graces of heaven in him, which appeared in his extraordinary devotion on this occasion, as well as at his ordination.
On the day he said his first mass, by a particular inspiration from God, he came to a resolution of devoting himself to the occupation of ransoming Christian slaves from the captivity they groaned under among the infidels; considering it as one of the highest act. of charity with respect both to their souls and bodies. But before he entered upon so important a work, he thought it needful to spend some time in retirement, prayer, and mortification; and having heard of a holy hermit, St. Felix Valois, living in a great wood near Gandelu, in the diocese of Meux, he repaired to him and begged he would admit him into his solitude, and instruct him in the practice of perfection. Felix soon discovered him to be no novice, and would not treat him as a disciple, but as a companion. It is incredible what progress these two holy solitaries made in the paths of virtue, by perpetual prayer, contemplation, fasting, and watching.
One day, sitting together on the bank of a spring, John disclosed to Felix the design he had conceived on the day on which he said his first mass, to succour the Christians under the Mahometan slavery, and spoke so movingly upon the subject that Felix was convinced that the design was from God, and offered him his joint concurrence to carry it into execution. They took some time to recommend it to God by prayer and fasting, and then set out for Rome in the midst of a severe winter, towards the end of the year 1197, to obtain the pope’s benediction. They found Innocent III promoted to the chair of St. Peter, who being already informed of their sanctity and charitable design by letters of recommendation from the Bishop of Paris, his holiness received them as two angels from heaven, lodged them in his own palace, and gave them many long private audiences. After which he assembled the cardinals and some bishops in the palace of St. John Lateran, and asked their advice. After their deliberations he ordered a fast and particular prayers to know the will of heaven. At length being convinced that these two holy men were led by the spirit of God, and that great advantages would accrue to the church from such an institute, he consented to their erecting a new religious order, and declared St. John the first general minister. The Bishop of Paris, and the abbot of St. Victor, were ordered to draw up their rules, which the pope approved by a bull in 1198. He ordered the religious to wear a white habit, with a red and blue cross on the breast, and to take the name of the order of the Holy Trinity. He confirmed it some time after, adding new privileges by a second bull, dated in 1209.
The two founders having obtained the pope’s blessing and certain indults or privileges, returned to France, presented themselves to the king, Philip Augustus, who authorized the establishment of their order in his kingdom, and favoured it with his liberalities. Gaucher III, lord of Chatillon, gave them land whereon to build a convent. Their number increasing, the same lord, seconded by the king, gave them Cerfroid, the place in which St. John and St. Felix concerted the first plan of their institute. It is situated in Brie, on the confines of Valois. This house of Cerfroid, or De Cervo frigido, is the chief of the order. The two saints founded many other convents in France, and sent several of their religious to accompany the counts of Flanders and Blois, and other lords, to the holy war. Pope Innocent III wrote to recommend these religious to Miramolin, king of Morocco; and St. John sent thither two of his religious in 1201, who redeemed one hundred and eighty-six Christian slaves the first voyage. The year following, St. John went himself to Tunis, where he purchased the liberty of one hundred and ten more. He returned into Provence, and there received great charities, which he carried into Spain, and redeemed many in captivity under the Moors. On his return he collected large alms among the Christians towards this charitable undertaking. His example produced a second order of Mercy, instituted by St. Peter Nolasco, in 1235.
St. John made a second voyage to Tunis in 1210 in which he suffered much from the infidels, enraged at his zeal and success in exhorting the poor slaves to patience and constancy in their faith. As he was returning with one hundred and twenty slaves he had ransomed, the barbarians took away the helm from his vessel and tore all its sails, that they might perish in the sea. The saint, full of confidence in God, begged him to be their pilot, and hung up his companions’ cloaks for sails, and, with a crucifix in his hands kneeling on the deck, singing psalms, after a prosperous voyage, they all landed safe at Ostia, in Italy. Felix, by this time, had greatly propagated his order in France, and obtained for it a convent in Paris, in a place where stood before a chapel of St. Mathurin, whence these religious in France are called Mathurins.
St. John lived two years more in Rome, which he employed in exhorting all to penance with great energy and fruit. He died on the 21st of December, in 1213 aged sixty-one. He was buried in his church of St. Thomas, where his monument yet remains, though his body has been translated into Spain. Pope Honorius III confirmed the rule of this order a second time. By the first rule they were not permitted to buy any thing for their sustenance except bread, pulse, herbs, oil, eggs, milk, cheese, and fruit, never flesh or fish: however, they might eat flesh on the principal festivals, on condition it was given them. They were not, in travelling, to ride on any beasts but asses.” Butlers Lives of the Saints.
One of the founders of the Mercedarians with St. Peter Nolasco and King James of Aragon.