As we enter the solemn season of Lent, marked by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we turn our hearts and minds toward deeper spiritual reflection and renewal. For those of us doing the work of evangelization, discipleship, and accompaniment in our lives and ministries, Lent offers a unique opportunity to prune the efforts and areas of our hearts that are not bearing fruit so that we can ultimately be even more fruitful (John 15:1-8).
Fasting Can Supercharge Evangelization Efforts
Fasting is one of the most ancient practices of our faith. It is referenced throughout Scripture and the writings of the Church as a means by which we fight temptation, strengthen our will, and rely on Jesus more deeply. It's an essential practice in the life of a missionary disciple.
Thus the Christian community at Antioch sends its members forth on mission; having fasted, prayed and celebrated the Eucharist, the community recognizes that the Spirit has chosen Paul and Barnabas to be "sent forth." (Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, 27)
For those of us who are genuinely trying to live the mission of the Church - to "go and make disciples" - fasting should be a cornerstone of our efforts. After all, before beginning his public ministry and mission, Jesus fasted (Mt 4:1-4), and he instructed his disciples to fast as they started their ministry at his side (Mt 6:16-18).
Fasting cultivates spiritual discipline and self-control - essential qualities for effective evangelization. When we deny ourselves in small ways, we learn to rely more on God's strength and less on our own abilities and desires.
Lent invites us to look inside our heart with fasting, which frees us from attachment to things and from the worldliness that numbs the heart.
(Pope Francis, Ash Wednesday Homily 2019)
Fasting heightens spiritual sensitivity, making disciples more attuned to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. In a state of minor physical hunger or discomfort, we may be more receptive to God's guidance and direction. When we fast from distractions and noise, we create space for the Holy Spirit to move in our minds and hearts and free ourselves to be more aware of His movement.
Fasting can create a sense of solidarity with those who are marginalized or suffering. By voluntarily experiencing hunger, we gain a deeper understanding of the suffering of others and are motivated to respond with acts of mercy and justice. The empathy and compassion fostered by fasting enhance evangelizers' ability to connect with people from diverse backgrounds and understand their needs.
Fasting brings about conversion. When we fast, we redirect attention away from worldly comforts (such as food or other distractions) and towards God. For disciples, fasting creates space for deeper communion with God and sharpens our focus on Jesus and His mission for us.
Christ the Lord and the Church unite the call to fasting with repentance, that is, with conversion. To be converted to God, it is necessary to discover in ourselves that which makes us sensitive to what belongs to God... To open up to these spiritual contents, to these values, it is necessary to detach oneself from what serves only the consumer spirit, satisfaction of the senses.
(Pope John Paul II, General Audience, Mar 21, 1979)
The Church requires us to fast from food at certain times of the year - like on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. And "What are you giving up for Lent?" is a common question among Catholics during Lent. However, the life of a fruitful disciple weaves regular fasting of various types into our regular routines. Regularly engaging in this transformative practice enables us to grow in spiritual maturity, deepen our relationship with God, and bear fruit in our lives and ministries as we follow Christ more closely.
Fasting For Lent: Thinking Beyond Giving Up Chocolate
Since the ultimate goals of fasting are to help us be more like Jesus, to set us free from unhealthy attachments, to sharpen our prayer, and to teach us to rely on God, one good question to ask when deciding what to give up for Lent is: What is taking time, your heart, or your attention away from Jesus?
For those involved in the regular work and ministry of evangelization and accompaniment, another question is: What comforts, distractions, attitudes, or escapes are my most significant obstacles to sharing the Gospel?
The first step in deciding what to give up for Lent is to pray through those questions and listen to how the Holy Spirit responds. If you are still uncertain where God is trying to prune your heart and mind, consider praying through this list of suggestions for Lenten fasts focused on evangelization:
- Media Fasting: Fast from non-essential media consumption, such as social media, television, or video games. Use the time saved to deepen your prayer life, study Scripture, or engage in evangelization activities.
- Digital Detox: Consider fasting from excessive use of digital devices, such as smartphones or computers, outside of work or essential communication. Instead, commit to connecting with others face-to-face and see where the Holy Spirit opens the door to deeper and more meaningful conversations about faith.
- Work on Negative Habits or Attitudes: Identify negative habits or behaviors that hinder your evangelization efforts, such as gossiping, complaining, dishonesty, or impatience. Commit to fasting from one of these habits or attitudes for Lent, and focus on replacing it with positive actions that promote spiritual growth and make you a more authentic witness of the joy of the Gospel.
- Fasting from Judgment: Lent is an opportune time to reflect on our attitudes toward others and strive to reflect Jesus' love and compassion. Consider fasting from judgmental thoughts, words, or actions towards others during Lent. Instead, practice empathy, understanding, and forgiveness and ask God to give you his love for those with whom you struggle to have empathy and compassion.
- Fast from Self-Centeredness: Lent invites us to shift our focus from ourselves towards God and others. Fast from self-centered thoughts, desires, or behaviors; instead, prioritize serving and uplifting those around you. Your selflessness can open new opportunities for evangelization as it strengthens your relationships with those God has put in your direct circle of influence.
- Pair your Fasting with Focused Prayer: Whatever you choose as your Lenten fast, offer that fast up for someone’s specific intention - like the conversion or growth of a particular person you are currently accompanying. Ask the Holy Spirit when it might be appropriate to let them know you're doing it - a potentially powerful moment of evangelization!
Whatever you choose to give up for Lent, remember that the goal of fasting during Lent is not just self-denial but also spiritual growth and deepening our relationship with God. By discerning how Lenten fasting can focus on evangelization and ministry, we can align our actions with our mission to spread the Gospel and bring others closer to Christ.
Let Jesus Prune Your Heart This Lent
Lent is a perfect time for those of us engaged in evangelization and making disciples to focus on specific penitential fasting practices to deepen our spiritual renewal and preparation for sharing the Gospel. This intentional focus on fasting during Lent can help us allow Jesus to prune our shortcomings so that we can bear more fruit as his disciples.
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful...This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples."
The pruning process, which involves cutting away dead or unproductive branches, is the necessary purification and growth that we all must undergo to become more fruitful disciples. Just as the gardener prunes the vine to remove what is dead or unnecessary, our Lent fasting can open our hearts to allow God to prune away anything that hinders our relationship with Him and impedes our ability to bear fruit and to "go and make disciples."