“40 Days”

by Jimmy Akin

in Liturgical Year

Down yonder, a reader writes:

Vatican documents teach that Lent has 40 days of penance.

I need to stop you for a moment. Lent is not a matter of Church teaching. It is a matter of the Church’s liturgical law. Therefore, no Church document "teaches" that Lent is forty days. I point this out partly for the sake of accuracy and to put readers on guard against thinking this is a matter of Church teaching, given the emotionally charge that the word "teach" has for faithful Catholics. It’s a matter of law, not doctrine, so the matter is a question of what the Church’s law provides, not what the Magisterium teaches.

Back over to you . . .

For example the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 540 "By the
solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the
mystery of Jesus in the desert."

I would point out several things in response:

  1. One must evaluate Church documents by their nature. They are not all the same, and you have to look to the question of the nature of the work, the kind of language it uses, and the kind of authority it has toward a specific matter.
  2. You are quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church here. As its name suggests, it is a catechetical work, not a legal work. It does not establish the Church’s law, whether liturgical or otherwise. You have to look at the Church’s legal documents for that.
  3. As a catechetical work, the Catechism uses traditional catechetical language, which (as I’ve noted) speaks of Lent in an approximative way as being forty days. Since this is traditional catechetical language regarding Lent, it is the language the Catechism uses. This language is not to be replied upon as providing the technical legal description that is to be found in the Church’s legal documents.

You also write:

Forty days is also prominent in the 17 December 2001 document from
the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the
Sacraments entitled Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy:

"Lent

"124. Lent precedes and prepares for Easter. It is a time to hear
the Word of God, to convert, to prepare for and remember Baptism, to be
reconciled with God and one’s neighbour, and of more frequent recourse
to the "arms of Christian penance"(134): prayer, fasting and good works
(cf. Mt 6, 1-6. 16-18).

"Popular piety does not easily perceive the mystical aspect of Lent
and does not emphasize any of its great themes or values, such a
relationship between "the sacrament of forty days" and "the sacraments
of Christian initiation", nor the mystery of the "exodus" which is
always present in the lenten journey. Popular piety concentrates on the
mysteries of Christ’s humanity, and during Lent the faithful pay close
attention to the Passion and Death of Our Lord.

"125. In the Roman Rite, the beginning of the forty days of penance
is marked with the austere symbol of ashes which are used in the
Liturgy of Ash Wednesday. …"

While the Directory for Popular Piety and the Liturgy is a document published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, which is the competent dicastery to revise the calendar, this document is still not the controlling legal document for the calendar. That document is the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, which was quoted earlier and which provides a definition of Lent that is not forty days long.

The Directory for Popular Piety is a pastoral document rather than a legal document. It contains language of a pastoral nature that draws upon the traditional and approximative mode of speech regarding Lent being forty days long. It does not re-define the length of Lent in supercession of the General Norms.

In order for it to do so, it would not only have to indicate that it was revising the calendar (it does not), it would also have to be approved by the pope in forma specifica (it is not; it has only general papal approval).

The presence of the traditional, approximative language in this or other documents thus does not override the fact that the controlling legal document for the calendar–the General Norms–specifies a Lenten period of more than forty days.

It’s understandable that folks would be confused on this point, because the traditional mode of speech, if taken literally, is at variance with the length specified in the controlling legal document–which is why this question comes up every year.

My compliments on your throughness in investigating this!

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{ 8 comments }

Eric Giunta February 11, 2005 at 9:58 am

Jimmy:
Could you please recap how binding the fasting/abstinence laws, with regard to Lent and all other Fridays?
I tried following the multi-part discussion you had on this a couplea years ago, but found this real confusing.
1) Are we bound under pain of sin to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and to abstain from meat on Lenten Fridays?
2) Are we bound under pain of sin to observe SOME KIND OF penetential discipline on all non-Lenten Fridays?
It seems to me that the U.S. bishops dispensed U.S. Catholics from abstaining from meat under pain of sin, but did not dispense from the general obligation to do pennance, under pain of sin.
What say you? Does universal Church law on this bind under pain of sin, and if so can a National Conference not merely substitute penances, but actually dissolve their binding nature?
Thanks!

John Lilburne February 11, 2005 at 1:37 pm

Jimmy I think you are giving undue weight to part of a document approved on 14 February 1969, General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar.
It has: “28. Lent runs from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord’s Supper exclusive.
The Alleluia is not used from the beginning of Lent until the Easter Vigil.”
The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy is more recent. The decree promulgating it concludes:
“Having received the approval of the Supreme Pontiff JOHN PAUL II to publish this “Directory on Popular Piety. Principles and Guidelines” (Letter of the Secretariat of State, Prot. N. 497.514 of 14 December 2001), the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments is pleased to publish it in the hope that both Pastors and faithful may draw from this instrument, encouragement to grow in Christ, through him and with him, in the Holy Spirit to the praise of God the Father in heaven.
“Anything contrary not withstanding.
“From the offices of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, 17 December 2001.”
What it reflects is a different understanding of Lent than that given in the 1969 document. It has “Lent precedes and prepares for Easter.” It does not say “Lent precedes the Mass of the Lord’s supper” or “The season of Lent precedes the Season of the Easter Triduum”.
This prevailing understanding of the term “Lent” should be taken into account when interpreting the liturgical books.
For example the 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal has in
62a “The Alleluia is sung in every season other than Lent.” It does not include the Season of the Easter Triduum. So if you believe that the season of Lent does not include the Mass of the Lord’s Supper then you believe 2002 GIRM 62a is instructing you to sing the Alleluia during this Mass. Clearly this is not the intention. Lent is understood as going up to Easter.
There should be a similar understanding in interpreting the 1984 Ceremonial of Bishops: “252. During Lent the altar is not to be decorated with flowers, and the use of musical instruments is allowed only to support the singing.” It is not the intention that the stripped altar of Holy Saturday be decorated with flowers. Lent is understood to include the Easter Triduum.
With this understanding you get exactly 40 Days of Penance, as reflected in the Latin name for “Lent” of “Quadragesimae”.
1 Wed 09 Feb 05
2 Thu 10 Feb 05
3 Fri 11 Feb 05
4 Sat 12 Feb 05
Sun 13 Feb 05
5 Mon 14 Feb 05
6 Tue 15 Feb 05
7 Wed 16 Feb 05
8 Thu 17 Feb 05
9 Fri 18 Feb 05
10 Sat 19 Feb 05
Sun 20 Feb 05
11 Mon 21 Feb 05
12 Tue 22 Feb 05
13 Wed 23 Feb 05
14 Thu 24 Feb 05
15 Fri 25 Feb 05
16 Sat 26 Feb 05
Sun 27 Feb 05
17 Mon 28 Feb 05
18 Tue 01 Mar 05
19 Wed 02 Mar 05
20 Thu 03 Mar 05
21 Fri 04 Mar 05
22 Sat 05 Mar 05
Sun 06 Mar 05
23 Mon 07 Mar 05
24 Tue 08 Mar 05
25 Wed 09 Mar 05
26 Thu 10 Mar 05
27 Fri 11 Mar 05
28 Sat 12 Mar 05
Sun 13 Mar 05
29 Mon 14 Mar 05
30 Tue 15 Mar 05
31 Wed 16 Mar 05
32 Thu 17 Mar 05
33 Fri 18 Mar 05
34 Sat 19 Mar 05
Sun 20 Mar 05
35 Mon 21 Mar 05
36 Tue 22 Mar 05
37 Wed 23 Mar 05
38 Thu 24 Mar 05
39 Fri 25 Mar 05
40 Sat 26 Mar 05
Sun 27 Mar 05

Jimmy Akin February 12, 2005 at 5:52 am

John: Once again, I appreciate your thoroughness, but a few off hand comments in a traditional mode of speech in documents that are not of a legal nature and do not carry in forma specifica approval do not constitute a redefinition of the Roman calendar contrary to what is said in the controlling legal document.
The fact these documents are more recent makes no difference. An occasional, traditional reference to “forty days” does not constitute a new definition of the season contrary to the one in the General Norms.
The General Norms stand until Rome *expressly* modifies them.

Jimmy Akin February 12, 2005 at 5:57 am

ERIC, YOU WRITE:
1) Are we bound under pain of sin to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and to abstain from meat on Lenten Fridays?
YES.
2) Are we bound under pain of sin to observe SOME KIND OF penetential discipline on all non-Lenten Fridays?
NO.
It seems to me that the U.S. bishops dispensed U.S. Catholics from abstaining from meat under pain of sin, but did not dispense from the general obligation to do pennance, under pain of sin.
NO. IF YOU READ THE DOCUMENTS CAREFULLY, THEY RETAINED FRIDAYS OUTSIDE LENT AS DAYS OF PENANCE BUT THEY DID NOT IMPOSE ANY LEGAL REQUIREMENT ON THE FAITHFUL TO ALL, INDIVIDUALLY, DO SOME KIND OF ACT OF PENANCE ON FRIDAYS OUTSIDE OF LENT.
What say you? Does universal Church law on this bind under pain of sin, and if so can a National Conference not merely substitute penances, but actually dissolve their binding nature?
YES, IT CAN. NATIONAL CONFERENCES MODIFY THE OBLIGATIONS OF UNIVERSAL LAW ALL THE TIME. THAT’S *WHY* EACH NATION HAS ITS OWN PARTICULAR LAW AND WHY UNIVERSAL LAW HAS TEN HOLY DAYS OF OBLIGATION WHILE CANADA HAS ONLY TWO. IF ROME APPROVES WHAT A CONFERENCE PROPOSES FOR ITS PARTICULAR LAW THEN THAT STANDS.

Eric Giunta February 12, 2005 at 6:58 am

Thanks, Jimmy!
One more question?
Is the obligation to fast.abstain during the prescribed days in Lent binding under mortal or venial sin? Which?
Thanks!

Jimmy Akin February 12, 2005 at 7:08 am

The common understanding is that it is a grave obligation and thus results in mortal sin if deliberately and knowingly violated without adequate reason.

Carol March 1, 2006 at 12:03 pm

Jimmy … all of the Catholic Churches begin Lent on Ash Monday, except for the Latin Church which begins counting the days on Ash Wednesday. Do you know the history behind this?

ArchAngel February 7, 2008 at 9:37 am

Saint Leo the Great did himself declare in Sermo 6,1-2 concerning Lent:
“To this end we follow with care and devotion the apostolic custom of a forty-day fast in which we abstain not simply from bodily food but primarily from all evildoing.”

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