“Lent and the Sacraments of Baptism and Penance” by Fr. Jesus Galindo, OFM

Many of the biblical readings at Mass during this season of Lent can hardly be understood unless we keep in mind the institution of the catechumenate and the religious instruction which the catechumens, i.e., the candidates for baptism, received during the first part of the Mass. One could become a catechumen and receive instruction at any time of the year. In fact, the catechumenate used to last for as long as three years. During this time, the catechumens, under the supervision of the Christian community, tried to put into practice the Ten Commandments. This was called the remote preparation.

When one finally wanted to receive baptism or was considered fit to be baptized, he had to make his desire known to the Church authorities at the beginning of Lent. Those who proved to be serious applicants for baptism were admitted on Ash Wednesday into the list of electi (the chosen ones); during the weeks of Lent, they underwent intense instruction and ascetical training, fast and mortification. This was called the proximate preparation. Baptism was administered only once a year – during the Easter Vigil. Even now, the Vigil’s part three is called, “Liturgy of Baptism.”

After their enrolment in the list of baptizandi (candidates for baptism), they had to undergo three public ceremonies called scrutinia. These scrutinies were first held on the 3rd, 4th and 5th Sundays of Lent, but by the beginning of the 7th century they were moved to Friday of the 3rd week and Wednesday and Friday of the 4th week of Lent. During the second scrutiny they were taught about, and handed a copy of the four gospels, the Creed, and the Our Father. Today, the Masses of these latter days contain several references to baptism – a remnant of the special ceremonies held in those days for the catechumen.

In the pre-Vatican II missals, the first part of the Mass (which we now call Liturgy of the Word) was called Mass of the Catechumens, in reference to the old practice of dismissing the catechumens from church right after the gospel. They were not allowed to participate in the second part of the Mass – the Liturgy of the Eucharist. After the reading of the gospel and the prayers of the faithful, the deacon would say three times, in a loud voice: “Let all the catechumens leave!”; Extant Catechumeni!

The practice of the catechumenate has been revived or restored by the Second Vatican Council. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states: “The catechumenate for adults, comprising several distinct steps, is to be restored and brought into use at the discretion of the local ordinary. By this means the time of the catechumenate, which is intended as a period of suitable instruction, may be sanctified by sacred rites to be celebrated at successive intervals of time.” (n.64)

When the practice of public penance was organized in the 5th and 6th centuries, the sackcloth and ashes were chosen as a sign of punishment for those who had committed serious crimes. This practice of putting on, or sitting on, sackcloth and ashes existed already in the Old Testament. (Est 4:1; Jon 3:5) In the New Testament, it is mentioned in Lk 10:13 as a sign of penance.

The ashes were imposed on the very first day of the Lenten fast, the Wednesday of Quinquagessima. The period of penance lasted until Holy Thursday, when public sinners were solemnly reconciled, absolved from their sins and allowed to receive Holy Communion, after having satisfactorily fulfilled their penance, as described below. This, by the way, is the origin of the term quarantine, accepted into common usage, to signify separation or exclusion from human contact (as in the case of certain prisoners and persons suffering from infectious diseases).

The procedure of public penance was as follows: Public sinners
approached their priest shortly before Lent to accuse themselves of their misdeeds. On Ash Wednesday, they were presented by the priest to the bishop of the place. Outside the cathedral, poor and noble alike stood barefoot, dressed in sackcloth, with heads bowed in humble contrition. The bishop assigned to each one particular acts of penance, according to the nature and gravity of his crime. Whereupon they entered the church – the bishop leading one of them by the hand and the others following in single line, holding each other’s hand.

Before the altar, not only the penitents but also the bishop and all his clergy recited the seven penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143). Then, each penitent went forward; the bishop imposed ashes on his head and put on him the tunic of sackcloth. After this ceremony, the penitents were led out of the church and were forbidden to re-enter it until Holy Thursday for the reconciliation ceremony.

Meanwhile, they would spend the Lenten weeks apart from their families, in a monastery or in some other place of voluntary confinement, where they devoted themselves to prayer, manual work and works of charity. Among other things, they had to go barefoot all through Lent, were forbidden to converse with others, were made to sleep on the ground or on beddings of straw, and were not allowed to bathe or to cut their hair.

The Church, as a loving mother, did not forget her contrite children; some of the prayers and readings of the Lenten Masses seem to have been chosen with the penitents in mind. (CF. Guide for the Christian Assembly, Vol. II) Eventually, the imposition of ashes as well as other penitential practices were shared, not only by public sinners but by all other people as well, leaving their mark both in the Lenten liturgy and in the ascetical exercises of the season.

About Fr. Jesus and his reflections