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What Lent means to people preparing to join the Catholic Church
Like many traditions in the Catholic Church, the season of Lent which begins this coming week developed over time from simple, practical origins.
In the early Church, new members were always initiated into the Christian community at Easter. People preparing for baptism, called “catechumens”, fasted for two days beforehand. Gradually this time of preparation lengthened until, by the fourth century, it had become set at 40 days.
The number 40 has special significance in scripture: in the story of the great flood it rained for 40 days and 40 nights; Christ spent 40 days in the wilderness after being baptised by John; Moses and Elias fasted for 40 days in the desert.
As well as the time for catechumens to make their final preparations for initiation, Lent was a period of preparation for penitents who would be reconciled with the Christian community on Holy Thursday. Other members of the church journeyed with the catechumens and penitents during these 40 days through fasting, almsgiving and prayer.
When it became the norm for infants rather than adults to be baptised, Lent lost its baptismal focus and became associated almost exclusively with penance. This is why many people associate Lent exclusively with acts of self-denial, like “giving up” a favourite food or pastime.
The original meaning and purpose of Lent has largely been reclaimed because of a change in the process of initiating adults into the Church following the Second Vatican Council. For hundreds of people who will be baptised at Easter, Lent is once again a time of intense preparation known as the “Period of Purification and Enlightenment”.
A special liturgy called the Rite of Election is held on the first Sunday of Lent, usually in the cathedral church of the diocese, to mark the beginning of this stage. It celebrates publicly the fact that the catechumens have progressed on their faith journey and have opened their hearts to Christ in a spirit of faith and love. They are “elected” for initiation into the Church, not because they have earned it, but because God has chosen them. From this point on they are known as “the elect”. The Church asks us all to “surround the elect with prayer” and to “accompany them to encounter Christ”.
On the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent, rites called “Scrutinies” are celebrated with the elect in their parish communities. In the light of God's word, they examine their lives and ask the entire Christian community to pray that whatever is weak and sinful within them may be eliminated and that whatever is good and holy may be affirmed.
As well as conferring strength and healing on the elect, these rites confront all the faithful with the need for conversion. Lent is a time of purification and enlightenment for each one of us as we strive to rid ourselves of the hidden corruption of evil.
During Lent we are all on a journey as we prepare to celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Christ at the Easter Triduum and to continue that celebration throughout the 50 days of the joyful Season of Easter.