St. Paul always lived with an intense awareness of the grace of the moment. “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor 6: 2). And, like Jesus before him, he was eager to observe the seasons of grace, even if it required a little extra effort (see Acts 20:16).
He recognized, too, that there were appoint times for penance and purification, and he was happy to keep them (see Acts 21:26-27), matching external observance with interior repentance. He fasted (Acts 14:23). He shaved his head (Acts 21:24). He disciplined his body with some degree of severity (1 Corinthians 9:27).
But it wasn’t all show. He did it so that he could go about “serving the Lord with all humility and tears” (Acts 20:19). St. Paul, after all, had reason to be repentant. Remember, in his youth he was the Church’s most ardent persecutor!
I can identify with him. I, too, did my share of persecuting the Church. For a solid ten years of my life, I was happiest when I drew Catholics away from the practice of their faith. I was unsparing in my assault on their beliefs. Like St. Paul, I consider Lent a mercy, because it reminds me of where I was, how far I’ve come – and how much farther God wants me to go!
He wants us all to go far. We live in demanding times, and only with discipline can we meet the demand with an adequate “supply.” Lent is a season of grace, a free gift from God, but he waits for our free response, our cooperation.
The traditional three “marks” of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, all marks of a truly Pauline spirituality. Throughout these forty days, you and I will pray. Let’s pray for one another. I need you! Throughout these forty days, you and I will fast, as the Church requires, let’s fast for one another. And, throughout these forty days, you and I will give alms. Please consider me a beggar at your door. I am begging on behalf of St. Paul’s mission, continued today through this Center you and I have dedicated to his name.
We need one another. I need you, especially in these demanding times, when so many of us are called to “be imitators” of St. Paul (1 Corinthians 11:1), following him along the most difficult path: to rejoice in suffering. “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24).
Prayer, fasting, almsgiving: St. Paul did it all with a penitential spirit, and look where it got the Church. God has great things left to do. Just wait and see where Lent takes us in the Year of St. Paul.