After news of the PA Grand Jury Report and the McCarrick scandals broke, two of my seminary classmates and myself took up prayer, fasting and penance for the Church. Increasingly desperate times call for increasingly desperate, or rather heroic, measures…
A priest friend shared with one of his parishioners that he was entering into a time of fasting and penance for the healing of the Church. The rather negative reaction was as follows: “Fasting… what’s that going to do? What is that going to help with?”
In my previous article, we reflected a little why and how fasting is essential to the Christian life, especially in a world that is as disorienting as ours. It is not a matter of denying worldly things for the sake of needless suffering, but fasting helps to reorient us back to God and the life of virtue and holiness God intended for us. After all, God is the truest source of the fulfillment happiness, despite all the world’s temptations and distractions.
My second fear is as follows.In a supremely materialistic society, we have become tempted to believe that Christian fasting does not have any supernatural repercussions nor do those repercussions have an affect in the real world.As Christians, we believe fasting is not merely a personal penitential practice that affects the individual only, but that it can also be intercessory on a supernatural level. God not only created the world good and He also created it in a way that the natural and the supernatural mingle together on the same plane.
In other words, prayer and fasting help to affect reality. Fasting, our embodied prayer of re-orienting ourselves back to God, can also help to secure grace – act as a healing remedy – for others. Certainly, prayer is not magic or an individualistic “Me and Jesus experience”. Prayer is a growth in relationship that secures graces and brings about real transformation – personally and communally. In this sense, fasting is a way of helping to heal within the body of Christ as our penitential denial is united spiritually to a specific petition.
Allow me to illuminate this deeper spiritual significance of fasting by relating it to the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. In this Sacrament, the Church prays for the healing of a person who is sick in mind, body, or soul. The healing is not necessarily for its own sake, but for the sake of the person’s salvation. Ultimately, the sacrament is meant to provide the person what they need to be reoriented back to God.
Naturally, the hoped for outcome is a physical healing for a person with a physical ailment. As bodily beings, physical suffering greatly disturbs us. Yet, the physical realm is not always the way the healing is manifested. Rather, the healing could manifest spiritually in a deeper encounter of God, a conversion of their heart, and a needed confession their past failures to love God and others. Psychologically, the healing may also bring them a deep sense of peace in the person or may even manifest in the peace and hope of their family members.
In the Sacrament, an anointing may not lead to a physical healing, but what needs healed will be healed. Similarly, as a quasi-sacramental practice, if a Christian takes up fasting for the sake of a situation in the world or the Church, reality can be affected, can be healed. It may not manifest in a predictable way, but it will nonetheless be manifest.
Fasting for the sake of the Church, in light of men who have lived corrupt lives, may not necessarily lead to a complete and immediate healing of the evil in specific situations of corruption and abuse. Indeed, that should be in the desired intention and that healing very well may occur. Yet, the fasting may make grace available and manifest a deeper healing in the Church by the very fact that the Christian’s own life becomes increasingly more virtuous and lived in grace. Then, fasting is a great opportunity of heroic witness. Their personal transformation and witness lead to the inspiration and conversion of others. Conversion means the Church is stronger and more holy.
Looking to the Crucifixion of Christ, we can see the ultimate example of intercessory fasting. On the cross, Christ voluntarily fasted, denied himself, of all that world offered him – pride, pleasure, and power. This denial was not for its own sake, but was an expression and witness of his love for God and others.
As we know, it was not Christ who needed the benefit of this ultimate fast, he did so for our sake. We needed a divine intercessor to be eternally realigned with our Creator. Jesus’ prayer to the Father helped us gain the possibility of eternal life. We know this by his intentional uniting of his sacrifice to our need as he prayed, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Christ’s fast on the cross certainly meant death, but it also led to eternal life.
In Luke, Jesus supports our need to fast as he explains to the Pharisees, “But the time will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them; then, in those days, they will fast.” (Lk 5:35) Fasting is a serious practice that needs to be recovered in Christian prayer and witness. It is a genuine spiritual tool and can help effect real consequences in our everyday lives. The ascetical life is not just for serious and pious Catholics. Each one of us is called to live a radical Christian life and, as we well know, the Church needs conversion.
Unfortunately, we have grown increasingly lax in the external observance of our faith over the past decades. What really do we do as Catholics, in regard to fasting, that marks us as living a life set apart from the culture? Where is the fervor of the ascetic life to which we are all called? Certainly, it is known that Catholics do fish fries in Lent pretty well, but sometimes these can unfortunately mark more feasts than fasts.
Furthermore, not only have we been tempted to stop praying/fasting publicly, we have really been tempted to just stop praying all together! It has long been known that an increasingly low number of Catholics (39% at best)attend weekly liturgy. When the Church stops believing in truly transformative, supernatural power of prayer, especially fasting and intercessory prayer, it will stop praying. And when the Church stops praying the more the Evil One has power to corrupt and divide.
This lenten season is an important opportunity. It could be a time of profound renewal for the our lives and the life of the Church.In light of all that has happened even in the past year in the Church and the world, we truly need to embrace fasting and become reoriented back to God and His plan for us. I firmly believe that a movement toward an embrace of the transformative, healing power of prayer and fasting will only help the spiritual strength of the Church. Increasingly desperate times call for increasingly heroic measures…