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Ordained in 2011, Father Friel served for five years as Parochial Vicar at St. Anselm Parish in Northeast Philly. He is currently studying toward an STL in sacred liturgy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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“Vatican II did not say anything about the direction of the celebrant. […] I love both directions of celebrating Mass. Both are full of meaning for me. Both help me to encounter Christ—and that is, after all, the purpose of the liturgy.”
— Christoph Cardinal Schönborn (February 2007)

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The Joy of Penance
published 25 March 2017 by Fr. David Friel

NLY SOMEONE who knows very little about music would say that major scales make for happy music and minor scales make for sad music. To say this is a gross over-simplification. For one thing, it expresses a narrow viewpoint, in the sense that major and minor scales are a feature of relatively recent, European music. Such a claim also has to ignore an enormous number of counter-examples that seem to contradict it. The somber bugle call, Taps, for example, is comprised of notes from a single major chord. Meanwhile, the popular Christmas carol, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, which extends “tidings of comfort and joy,” is written in E minor.

So it’s not as simple as “major = happy” and “minor = sad.”

Within any key or mode or major or minor scale, melodies can be composed that evoke a vast array of sentiments and responses. Music is the purveyor of a great richness, a true wealth of complexity.

IMILARLY, only someone who knows very little about the Church would say that Lent is a sad time and Easter is a happy time. To say this is another gross over-simplification. Such a claim, in fact, has to ignore counter-examples. Is there not a twinge of sadness, for example, in the feast of the Ascension, when our Lord’s Presence among us undergoes a change? And, in Lent, are there not moments of great joy, such as the Palm Sunday procession recalling our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem? Indeed, there is more subtlety to both Lent and Paschaltide than might first appear obvious.

Does not our Lord acknowledge this very reality? On Ash Wednesday, the Gospel reading recounts this admonition from Jesus: “When you fast, do not be sad like the hypocrites.” Indeed, the Lord, Himself, recognizes that sadness and joy are never a strict duality, in total opposition to one another. Rather, it is often the case that the experience of one entails a little bit of the other, too.

This is important for us to remember in Lent. Most Catholics (and even many non-Catholic Christians) undertake a personal program of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during these penitential days. But the fruit of penance ought not to be sadness or dullness or melancholy. Our Lenten practices are not intended to make us gloomy or sullen or miserable. The fruits of our Lenten observance, rather, should be joy, peace, generosity, kindness, forbearance, love. Said another way, “being sad” is not intrinsic to penance and mortification. If our works of penance are accomplishing their purpose—namely, to conform us more closely to Christ—then should we not expect them to produce within us a spirit of joy?

UST over halfway through Lent, the Church reminds us of all this by giving us Laetare Sunday. The strictures of the season are lightened for today: the altar can be decorated with some flowers, the organ can be played on its own, and the priest wears rose-colored vestments.

We find further encouragement in the magnificent introit for today, from the Book of Isaiah, in which the Church sings: Laetare Ierusalem! “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and gather round, all you who love her. Rejoice in gladness, after having been in sorrow! Exult and be replenished with the consolation flowing from her motherly bosom.”

Lent and joy are not mutually exclusive. The penance of Lent teaches us, in fact, that joy does not derive solely from things that “feel good” and satisfy our appetites. It is actually by embracing difficult things that deny our appetites in an effort to satisfy the spiritual longings of our hearts that we derive the highest joys.

Sarah rejoiced when the Lord brought forth a son from her long barrenness. The crowd of five thousand was overjoyed when the Lord used a meager five loaves and two fish to transform their hunger into a superabundance. The Israelites praised God for bringing forth water from a rock in the desert. Let us not be surprised, therefore, if the Lord should use our Lenten mortification to bring about the fruits of joy and gladness.


Editor’s Note : It is also worth recalling that many melodies in the Graduale Romanum used for Lenten Sundays are also used for Eastertide. This fact is quite uncomfortable for those who insist upon a superficial relationship between text and melody.