Leaning Into Lent: Father Mike Schmitz’s Tips for a Fruitful Penitential Season
‘We are trusting that God sees our sacrifices and that they make a difference.’
Father Mike Schmitz is a Newman Center chaplain at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and podcast host of the popular The Bible in a Year and The Catechism in a Year. He is known for his practical and encouraging advice for Catholics of all ages. As we embark on Lent, the Register asked Father Schmitz’s advice via email on living these days well.
In his Feb. 17 responses, Father Schmitz reflected on prioritizing Christ in daily life, picking prudent penances and more.
At the recent SEEK conference, you assured attendees, “Jesus is who he says he is. Everything that he says is true, regardless of what our culture says.” You also said: “Remember: ‘Faith is a relationship.’ I can do nothing else but say Yes to the God of truth.” How can these assurances help Catholics navigate this penitential season?
One of the first things that comes to mind in response to this question is the amount of faith that goes into every prayer that “costs” me something.
If you remember the story of Jonah, he travels to Nineveh with the message, “In forty days, Nineveh will be destroyed.” In response, every person chooses to repent in sackcloth and ashes ... everyone from the king down to the animals in the city. I’ve often reflected on what is being said in this physical action: God sees what I am doing, and it matters. This is what we are saying when we enter into a penitential season as well. We are trusting that God sees our sacrifices and that they make a difference in some mysterious way.
We know we should be committed to prayer, fasting and almsgiving: What practical tips can you offer to help Catholics do so with true intention and not become too discouraged throughout the journey?
I am a big fan of choosing penances of prayer, fasting and almsgiving that are less arbitrary and more intrinsic to each person's life. What I mean by this is: We often choose a penance based on how “difficult” it seems or on the kind of challenge that it might pose to us.
If a penance seems like it is serious enough (but maybe not too serious), then we might choose it. But often, our penances are not necessarily connected to what we absolutely need. When considering prayer, we can ask: “In what way do I need to grow closer to the Lord?” When considering fasting, we can ask: “What do I need to get rid of in order to be more free to love and serve the Lord?” And when considering almsgiving, we can ask: “Where do I believe that I am called to give or serve?”
It can be helpful to recognize how high the stakes are. For example, we can try and face the question, “What can I absolutely not have in my life if I am going to be the saint God is calling me to be?”
Since you are working through the Catechism of the Catholic Church in your podcast this year, what sections are particularly relevant to Lent?
Throughout Lent, we will still be in the first pillar of the Catechism, which focuses primarily on what we believe (or the Creed). Because of this, I am struck by the reminder of who we know God to be and the ways that he has given us his Church as the sacrament of salvation. This instills in me a greater sense of trust in his immanence and the fact that God is calling us to cooperate with his will in this life.
Living penitentially is not easy, of course. How would you encourage Catholics who will inevitably struggle over these Lenten weeks, even as they know Easter hope is on the horizon?
I think that this goes back to the two elements of knowing that what we do matters to God and choosing penances that truly matter to us.
Which Bible verse or verses would be timely to reflect upon at this time?
Which saints would be good to look to over these 40 days?
I recommend the book The Imitation of Christ.