Whatever Happened to Lent?

A New Idea of Lent has invaded the entire Church. A gauzy altruism has taken the place of a rigorous program of penance and prayer. 

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...


No, not the nation, the Jesuit monthly.  

It never fails to disappoint. That is, if you are a secularized, self-loathing Catholic.  

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Actually, that was not always its audience. When it began in 1909, it was a robustly intellectual journal of Catholic writing rivaling the tony liberal periodicals of the early 20th century. This was the heyday of liberal hegemony in American thought, with such names as John Dewey, Henry James, Woodrow Wilson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes shaping American thinking. The titanic Jesuits of that time would have none of this. They founded America with the intention of toppling the reigning liberal gods of the time. Issue after issue defended the Church’s immemorial teaching with deep intellectual precision coupled with a dash of delectable panache. 

The Society of Jesus, in 1909, did not suffer fools gladly. They were trained in an intellectual hand-to-hand combat, and they performed it with relish. Their pens were like javelins thrust at the throat of every liberal idea from law and education to the arts and public morals. America magazine (then a weekly) was a deliberate red flag in the face of the leftist bulls charging at the Church and the conservative pillars of the American ethos. 

Today, we have a new America magazine. It leads the way in accommodation with the woke culture. Its raison d’être since 1968 (or thereabouts) was the attenuation of Catholic doctrine—and, at times, its outright denial—and a belittling of Catholic tradition. To read America today is to be lost in a fog of intellectual doubletalk and a chic acceptance of the zeitgeist. They work diligently to make doctrinal Catholicism appear like a fly trapped in amber.

Take Fr. Massingale who, in a recent issue of the magazine, explains how he eagerly embraced the Ramadan fast:

In the spring of 2019, after a series of high profile attacks on Muslim people in New York City and a reported rise in Islamophobia, I felt compelled to act in tangible solidarity with this vulnerable and targeted community. It just so happened that Ramadan was starting the next day. I decided I would observe its discipline of fasting as a way of accompaniment and solidarity.

I knew this sacred time in the Islamic tradition meant abstaining from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset, but I discovered it was even more rigorous. You fast from dawn—that is, even before the sun rises—until sunset…

That’s the gift of fasting; it attunes us with a deeper level of reality. The discipline of fasting helps me to see the world as God sees it. Fasting has helped me to look at the world around me in a new way: We are all vulnerable, but we are not all vulnerable in the same way or to the same degree.

Observe the sly legerdemain being played here. How could one not pity the poor? The disadvantaged? A closer look would discover that otherwise noble sentiment conceals one enormous fact: the disappearance of the supernatural. Where in America’s pages can you find a horror for violating the commandments? Atonement for sin? A dwelling upon the sufferings of the Savior? Even a slight nod to the entire Catholic tradition of joining oneself to Christ Crucified through prayer and mortification.

Look as you may. You will find none of these.

But, all the blame should not be laid at the doorstep of America. This New Idea of Lent has invaded the entire Church. A gauzy altruism has taken the place of a rigorous program of penance and prayer. 

Even more tragic is an almost complete disappearance of the Passion. Its absence is easily evident by simply glancing at the typical modern Catholic Church. In its struggle to create a “welcoming space,” it duplicates the sterile décor of a Ramada Inn. The iconography of the Passion has disappeared. Or, if still present at all, its modernist disfigurement is alienating. The whole project is meant to produce a metaphysical disequilibrium. Put another way, it is like a Rorschach test, making it possible to read into the formerly stolid Faith anything one wishes.

The traditional disciplines of Lent in no way ignored the primacy of holy charity—or as the ancient formulation had it, almsgiving. In fact, for two thousand years, Mother Church has consistently taught that the holy season of Lent stands upon three legs: penance, prayer, and almsgiving.  

But the order is crucial.  

Only by emptying ourselves through mortification and prayer can we begin to have a heart for others. That is, a heart like the Sacred Heart of Christ, not a political toady.  

An example would clarify. In the days of the Old Lent, children in Catholic grammar schools were handed something called a mite box, after the “widow’s mite” so praised by Christ, for she gave out of her want. The box was only about five inches in diameter, and the children were instructed to deposit in the box the nickels and dimes they would otherwise spend on candy and such. These mite boxes taught a profound theological lesson, all due to the image on its surface: Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane kneeling in agony.  

The children instantly grasped that every sacrifice they made of their small change would be a sacrifice joined to the sacrifice of Christ. Imagine. Such mystical lessons communicated by a mere small metal box. Even a nickel took upon itself a weighty doctrinal lesson of expiation.  

In the Old Lent, no action escaped the supernatural embrace of Christ, and every action was done for that transcendent purpose.

Today, those mite boxes have been replaced by some new contraption called “rice bowls.” The lesson is identification with the poor. Even a Marxist can be comfortable with that.

Where is the supernatural dimension? Where is the identification with Christ Crucified? The entire trajectory of the mite box was the Cross. One acts charitably because Christ demands this as union with Him. St. Paul’s words ring out: “Amor Christi urget nos!” (“The Love of Christ compels us!”).

The difference here is dramatic. The mite box hurls us into a domain of grace, and that is world changing. The rice bowl produces a transient titillation.

The New Lent swims in the waters of a vapid Catholicism which sees no difference in religions, miniaturizes doctrine, flattens the saintly pinnacles of perfection, and casts an embarrassing shrug at the erstwhile harsh disciplines of the Old Lent. For these belonged to a pre-1965 navel-gazing Church.

Add to this denuded Lent the tone-deaf prelates who delight in the sandbox pieties of a deracinated culture. Examples abound. Just a few days ago, one of our more prominent shepherds uttered this inanity sans embarrassment: “Blessings and graces to our Islamic brothers and sisters, because their holy season of Ramadan begins today! They’re a good example to us on our Lenten journey.”

Well, has it escaped this prestigious cleric that the Roman Church might have a few instances of “good example” over 2,000 years to make our “Lenten journey” more fruitful? Can he not find any more becoming way of expressing kindness to men of disparate religions other than embarrassing and slavish groveling?

But there is more to this collapse of Old Lent. In more parishes than one would care to mention, there has grown the practice of emptying holy water fonts and replacing them with gravel. This is supposed to replicate the “desert experience,” you see. Of course, these are the props of cheap vaudeville—nothing less than the replacement of Calvary with high-kicking Rockettes.

There is a direct correlation between the demise of Old Lent and the descent of the Church into a comic sideshow. There is a direct correlation between the demise of Old Lent and the descent of the Church into a comic sideshow.Tweet This

As the Church goes, so goes civilization. When the Church steps away from its salvific mission, the Gates of Hell march forward. When Gethsemane gives way to soap opera, man finds himself disappearing. When Catholic officialdom persist in making the Holy Faith more user friendly, then the Man Come of Age whom they seem so eager to serve and mimic will find that the Age smothers them.

Bring back the Old Lent. Before it is too late.


  • Fr. John A. Perricone

    Fr. John A. Perricone, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Iona University in New Rochelle, New York. His articles have appeared in St. John’s Law Review, The Latin Mass, New Oxford Review and The Journal of Catholic Legal Studies. He can be reached at www.fatherperricone.com.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...