Before the changes to the liturgy in the late 1960s, the Church in the West had a pre-Lenten season before the start of Lent that was known as Shrovetide. It included three Sundays of preparation for Lent known as Septuagesima (“seventieth”), Sexagesima (“sixtieth”), and Quinquagesima (“fiftieth”). There was also Quadragesima (“fortieth”) Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent.
There is much speculation as to how the days got their numerical names. One possibility is that they were a more or less literal countdown of the days before Easter (bracketing out Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays during Lent from fasting). Another possibility is that there were mystical connections, such as the “seventy” of Septuagesima representing the Babylonian Captivity. What is clear was that this was a time when the Church geared up to celebrate Lent—something of a spiritual countdown.
In generations past, this was a time in many Catholic countries when Carnival was celebrated as a sort of final round of winter merrymaking before the Lenten season began. An inquirer once said to me, “I’ve always wondered why the pope does not denounce this event. The sins that occur at these celebrations worldwide boggle the mind.”
Indeed, celebrations of Carnival around the world, including Mardi Gras in the southern U.S. (New Orleans being the most infamous), are notorious for unchaste and intemperate flamboyance. So how did it become popular in Catholic cultures in past generations, and why does it remain popular when the Church no longer celebrates Shrovetide liturgically in the same way it once did?
The purpose of the partying was to celebrate Christ’s birth and to prepare for Lent by using up foods that were forbidden during Lent by earlier Church abstinence disciplines.
In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with Carnival and no reason for the pope to condemn it. As we learned from societies in which Puritans took power, simply because sins happen at parties is no reason to ban parties. What is needed is the evangelization of culture so that people understand it’s possible to have fun while not sinning.
In sixteenth-century Italy, around the end of the Renaissance, St. Philip Neri (1515-1595) was mortified by the sinfulness of the Carnival celebrations in Rome. Rather than preach against Carnival, he organized alternative celebrations that combined pious devotions and the reception of the sacraments (particularly confession) with joyful pilgrimages to the various Roman churches. He was so successful that he became known as the Apostle of Rome (quite an accolade in the city in which the Christian foundations were laid by the apostles Peter and Paul).
Like St. Philip, we should strive not to stamp out fun but to transform it into holy joy. Because, as he said, “A joyful heart is more easily made perfect than a downcast one.”
Eventually, though, parties must end. As Prince Harry observed in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, “If all the year were playing holidays, to sport would be as tedious as to work.” But to shift from the festive atmosphere of Shrovetide to the more somber observance of Lent can be jarring. Perhaps this is where the wisdom of the Church’s one-time liturgical observance of pre-Lent was helpful.
And perhaps we can recapture a bit of that preparation for Lent in our personal devotions. Here are some of the ways Catholics used to prepare for Lent that we can incorporate into our lives today:
Sacramental confession. The word shrove comes from the word shrive and refers to confession. To be “shriven” means to have been sacramentally absolved from one’s sins. Many parishes offer Lenten penance services, but it has been an ancient custom for Christians to go to confession before Lent. Cleansing your conscience beforehand is not only good for you, it might reduce the lines waiting for confession during the Lenten season.
Spiritual reading. The readings for the Sundays leading up to Lent centered on the fall of man, the loss of original innocence, and man’s descent into grave sin. These days, we might make these readings from the first chapters of Genesis part of our personal devotional reading. If you pray the rosary, you might choose to focus on the sorrowful mysteries. Those with a devotion to the Divine Mercy might choose to bookend Lent and Easter with a Divine Mercy novena during pre-Lent and then from Easter through Divine Mercy Sunday.
Preparing for fast and abstinence. In times past, Christians consumed their meat and dairy products during pre-Lent in preparation for Lenten abstinence from these foods. The English custom of calling the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday “Pancake Tuesday” sprang from a day devoted to eating pancakes to use up the last of the eggs and butter. The day was made more festive with foot races in which matrons would race each other while flipping flapjacks. (Legend says the custom got its start when an English housewife raced to church while flipping the pancake she had been frying when the church bells rang.)
The Church in the West no longer requires Catholics to abstain from dairy and meat products except for abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and the Lenten Fridays. Still, many observe the pious custom of giving up for Lent a personal pleasure such as sweets, coffee, or some other rich food. Pre-Lent would be a good time to plan what you will give up during Lent and to prepare in other ways for the start of the season.
Self-examination. In March 2000, St. John Paul II prepared the Christian world for the start of the third millennium by leading the Church in an examination of its collective conscience. Whether or not you choose to go to confession during pre-Lent or Lent, the former might be a good time to do a more rigorous personal examination of conscience than you ordinarily do so as to prepare for Lent and Easter. Perusing a good examen, perhaps with the help of a spiritual director, might complement whatever spring cleaning of your home you do during this time.
In 2010, Benedict XVI stated, “Each year, on the occasion of Lent, the Church invites us to a sincere review of our life in light of the teachings of the gospel.” As we prepare for Lent this year, and every year, may we find time for that self-reflection to which Christ’s vicars have called us.