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The powerlessness of a baby is real power
Prior to Vatican II, the focus of Lent was
seen as being essentially penitential.
Since Vatican II, the Church has affirmed a
second prominent theme, that of baptism.
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy
(CSL) puts it this way:
Lent is marked by two themes: the
baptismal and the penitential.
A later document called General Norms
for the Liturgical Year remind us that Lent
is a preparation for the celebration of
Easter. For the Lenten liturgy disposes
both catechumens (those not yet baptised)
and the faithful to celebrate the paschal
mystery: catechumens through several
stages of Christian initiation; the faithful
through reminders of their own baptism
and through penitential practices.
This baptismal aspect is potentially easier
to recognise in parishes that celebrate the
Lenten rites for “the elect” through the Rite
of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).
Lent seems to have originated in Egypt
in the late 3rd century with a 40-day
fast commemorating Jesus’ 40 days
in the desert. With the growth of the
catechumenate in the 4th century, this
period of fasting, almsgiving and prayer
provided the context for preparing
catechumens for their Easter initiation as
they turned from faith in other gods to faith
in God through Jesus. The two themes of
Lent, the penitential and the baptismal,
were therefore well established from the
beginning of the 5th century.
The Vatican II restoration of the
Catechumenate (RCIA) in the Roman
Catholic Church has helped to mark Lent
as a penitential season for preparing
the elect for sacramental initiation and
for calling the faith community to renew
its own baptismal commitment as both
prepare for Easter.
How might we celebrate both the
baptismal and penitential character of Lent
in our Sunday liturgies?
The Scrutinies. The three Scrutinies
celebrated at parish Masses on the 3rd,
4th, and 5th Sundays of Lent, for those
to be baptised at Easter, can be a moving
reminder to all present of the Lenten call
to conversion and repentance. These are
rites of “self-searching and repentance” for
the elect, connecting their Lenten journey
to that of the faith community witnessing
these Scrutinies. The baptismal theme is
very prominent on these three Sundays of
Year A with their Gospel themes of water,
light and rising from death – rich themes
for Lenten homilies, reminding all us of the
meaning of our own baptism.
Stational Masses.These originated in
Rome during Lent, and were celebrated
at principal churches or shrines with the
pope or bishop presiding. Each year,
Archbishop Wilson visits our deaneries to
celebrate Lent with the local communities
across our Archdiocese. The venues and
dates of these Masses are listed in the
February issue of The Southern Cross and
will be repeated in forthcoming Diocesan
Silence. The use of silence in the liturgy
is very appropriate for this season. It is
suggested at times such as the penitential
rite, after the first and second readings and
the homily, and during the thanksgiving
after communion. Another way to mark
Lent might be to refrain from singing a
recessional, simply allowing the assembly
to disperse in silence after the final
Music. Those preparing the music of
Lent and Easter have a powerful tool at
their disposal for involving the assembly
more fully and actively in the liturgy. The
choices for Lent should have a certain
aural austerity, helped by keeping musical
accompaniment simple and maybe even
by singing some hymns without any
accompaniment (a cappella).
Environment. The liturgy documents call
for an absence of flowers, (except on the
4th Sunday of Lent and any major feasts).
Maybe the symbol of ashes that opened
the season of Lent could be a focus at the
entrance to the church during these 40
Lent provides us with many opportunities
to reflect on what our baptism asks of us
as people who have put on Christ or are
preparing to do so at Easter. Let us pray
with the Church universal that through
a deeper understanding of the paschal
mystery at the heart of life, (we) may press
on toward the Easter sacraments with
eager faith and ready hearts.
(Adapted from the Opening Prayer, 4th
Sunday of Lent).
Ilsa Neicinieks is a liturgy educator
with the Office for Worship and a
Sister of Mercy. She offers courses
and workshops including training for
There’s nothing like a newborn baby to
warm the cockles of your heart. Our family
recently had the pleasure of welcoming the
first great grandchild, Mabel Bessie, to our
clan and although she was born in New
South Wales, some of us caught up with
her just a few days after her birth during a
trip to Sydney last month.
To see my great niece’s tiny hands and
feet, pouting lips and soft skin creases on
her arms and legs brought back memories
of that unbridled love you feel when you
give birth to a child.
It is such a precious time for first-time
mum and dad, Emma and Chris, and also
pretty scary to think this human being is
totally dependent on them for survival.
The sight of little Mabel (pictured) being
held in the palm of her dad’s hand
reminded me of a recent column by US
theologian Father Ron Rolheiser on the
topic of God’s power as powerlessness in
which he refers to the powerlessness of a
baby as “real power”:
Power that can make you buckle under
is only one kind of power and ultimately
not the most transformative kind. Real
power is moral. Real power is the power of
truth, beauty, and patience. Paradoxically,
real power generally looks helpless. For
example: If you put a powerfully muscled
athlete, the CEO of a powerful corporation,
a playground bully, an Academy-award
winning movie star, and a baby into the
same room, who has the most power?
Ultimately, it’s the baby. At the end of the
day, the baby’s helplessness overpowers
physical muscle, economic muscle, and
charismatic muscle. Babies cleanse a
room morally; they do exorcisms, even the
most callous watch their language around
The concept of power has been a
topic of much discussion in the Royal
Commission’s final hearing into the
Catholic Church’s response to child
sexual abuse, particularly in reference to
clericalism and the abuse of power which
enabled such horrendous crimes to be
committed and covered up.
Parramatta Bishop Vincent Long, who is
the first Australian bishop of Vietnamese
background, said titles, privileges and the
Church’s institutional dynamics “breed
clerical superiority and elitism”.
He told the Commission he cringed when
parishioners called him “your lordship”.
There were many others giving evidence
who stressed the need for cultural change
as well as policies and procedures to
safeguard children in the future.
Father Gerry O’Hanlon, from Ireland,
referred to the “cultural blind spot” which
prevented Church officials, and indeed
other well-educated professionals, from
seeing child abuse for what it really was –
a crime – and how the elevated status of
clergy and the very passive role of children
contributed to this ‘blind spot’.
Bishop Long and Father O’Hanlon both
praised Pope Francis for trying to address
the imbalance of power within the Church
and for his efforts to eliminate clericalism.
Despite holding the most powerful position
in the Church, Pope Francis speaks and
acts with a humility and tenderness that
puts him on the same level as those whom
he serves. He is a breath of fresh air in an
institution that has long been perceived as
authoritarian and dogmatic.
It is ironic that the Church could develop
a structure and governance that is so at
odds with its real purpose – to walk with
the downtrodden, the sick, the poor, the
If we really want to understand
transforming power, we need look no
further than Jesus, who came into the
world as a tiny helpless baby and at the
end of his life submitted to helplessness to
become truly powerful.
Deepening our understanding of Lent
Ilsa Neicinieks rsm
Photo: Lauren Kennedy
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