Lent is the season of preparation for Easter. The liturgy refers to the holy exercises of this season as our “Christian warfare” (praesidia militiae christianae), because during this period we devote special attention to fighting against our spiritual enemies, notably our own fallen nature. During this season, the Church particularly recommends the spiritual “arms” of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The Lenten liturgical texts speak constantly of these three pious practices.

Lent includes 40 days of penance, in memory of the 40 days the Lord spent fasting in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry. In fact if we begin on Ash Wednesday, we can count a total of 46 days in Lent, but Sundays, which always call to mind Christ’s Resurrection, are never a day of penance, and so subtracting the six Sundays of Lent brings us back to 40 days of penance.

The liturgy of Lent has certain unique characteristics. Every day of Lent has its own special Mass, whereas on the other ferias of the year (a feria is a day when no feast is celebrated), the Mass of the preceding Sunday is simply repeated. The Lenten Masses tend to have as their theme either penance or the preparation for baptism, since the catechumens who will be baptised at Easter received their final preparation during Lent. In Lent there is a proper Preface for the Mass, which is said even on feast days.

After the final postcommunion prayer at Mass, there is a special additional prayer said over the people, who bow their heads. This prayer is repeated at Vespers. Even when a feast is celebrated during Lent, the feria must always be commemorated at Lauds and Vespers and Mass, and the Gospel from the ferial Mass, when it is not celebrated, is read in the place of the normal Last Gospel (Jn 1:1-14) at the end of feast-day Masses. The penitential aspect of the liturgy, initiated during Septuagesima, is intensified during Lent: the organ is no longer played and flowers no longer adorn the altar. In the Divine Office, additional prayers are added, which are recited kneeling.

  • What is Passiontide?

The last two weeks of Lent are know as Passiontide: this is the third and final stage of the preparation for Easter that began with Septuagesima and developed with Lent. The spirit of penance in the liturgy or of stripping away intensifies during this time: at Septuagesima purple vestments were introduced and the Gloria in excelsisand Alleluia disappeared from the Mass; with Lent, the organ was silenced and flowers no longer decorate the altar. Now, in this second part of Lent, the joyful Psalm 42 is omitted from the prayers at the foot of the altar, and the Gloria Patri is no longer said at its normal place in Mass (after the Asperges, when the priest washes his hands, etc.). In these last two weeks of Lent, the Lenten Preface is replaced at Mass by the Preface of the Holy Cross (also used on the feasts of the Holy Cross and the Precious Blood), as the thought of Our Lord’s impending sufferings comes to fill our mind. At Vespers we sing the beautiful hymn Vexilla Regis, “the banners of the king go forth,” in honour of the Cross, the victorious standard of Christianity. The most notable feature of Passiontide, however, is the covering of the images in the church: the crucifixes are all covered and, if it is not possible to cover all the images, at least the ones that adorn the altars or serve as a particular focus of devotion, should be covered. In the Middle Ages, this covering was done in some places at the beginning of Lent, and often a giant curtain, the “Lenten veil,” was drawn across the sanctuary during this whole season, to remind us that we have been driven from paradise by Adam’s sin, and it will be reopened to us only by Christ’s victory over sin and death at Easter (in the liturgy the nave, the place where the people sit, represents the Church on earth, and the sanctuary represents heaven). The veiling of the images is also a reference to the Gospel of Passion Sunday: “They therefore took up stones to cast at Him; but Jesus hid Himself, and went out from the temple.” The cross is unveiled liturgically on Good Friday, and the other images are uncovered during the Gloria at the Easter Vigil, as the bells are rung.

  • Feasts of the Dedication

During the month of November the liturgical calendar commemorates the feasts of the dedication – or consecration – of three of the great basilicas in Rome. On 9th November we celebrate the dedication feast of the Archbasilica of the Holy Saviour, commonly called Saint John Lateran, after its secondary dedication to S. John the Baptist (the ancient baptistery has been in use since the fourth century). This church is built on the site of the ancient Lateran Palace, given by the Emperor Constantine (who legalised Christianity in a.d. 313) to Pope Saint Sylvester I. The Basilica of the Holy Saviour is actually the “mother church” of the Catholic world, as it is the pope’s cathedral as bishop of Rome. Among its other interesting relics, the church contains the table from the Last Supper. On 18th November we celebrate the consecration of the Basilica of Saint Peter and the Basilica of Saint Paul, where the relics of these two great Apostles are respectively buried. The word basilica means a “royal hall.” Churches with a particular historical or cultural significance can be designated by the pope as “minor basilicas,” but these important churches in Rome are “major basilicas.”

The ceremony for the dedication of a church is one of the most impressive rites in the Catholic liturgy. The bishop blesses the exterior and interior walls with a special holy water called “Gregorian water.” He traces the letters of the Greek and Latin alphabets on the floor of the nave, inscribing them in a giant X-shaped cross of ash. He anoints the walls with chrism in twelve places, in honour of the Apostles, the “pillars” of the Church. Relics of martyrs are entombed in the altar, which itself is anointed with chrism; incense is burnt on the five crosses carved into the surface of the altar in memory the five wounds of Our Lord. A special Mass is then celebrated in the newly dedicated church; the anniversary is commemorated with a feast every year.