Christians across the world marked Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season, on February 14, 2024. Believers received ash markings of the Sign of the Cross on their foreheads. The process kicked off a 40-day spiritual exercise preparatory to Easter. The Parish Priest of St. Paul Catholic Church, Airport Road, Benin City, Edo State, Rev. Fr. Charles Omogiate, speaks with Bernadette Idalu on the meaning of Lent and what is expected of Catholics in this season. Excerpts:

This year, Ash Wednesday falls on the same day as Valentine’s Day. What does this portend to the church?

Valentine is a season and day of love celebrated every year on February 14th. It is a fixed date. Ash Wednesday is not a fixed date; it depends on the calculation of the lunar calendar. Coincidentally this year, they fall on the same day but the priority is on the Ash Wednesday. We practice love every day. On this day of Ash Wednesday which we say is prioritized, we begin our Lenten observance.

Lenten season is a time of repentance, penitence, conversion and preparation for Easter. What Ash Wednesday reminds us of is the preparation for death. That is why the ash is administered on the forehead of people to remind them of reality. The season of Lent is a holy season; it is a season when we are expected to draw closer to God.

There are observances we ought to keep during this season. One of it is prayer. Of course, we pray throughout the year but this time we are invited into a life of deep, intense prayers with God. The second aspect is fasting. What are we fasting from? We are fasting from food to mortify the flesh not because we are starving or we don’t have food, on the other hand, but because we want to discipline and mortify the flesh.

Almsgiving involves giving help or support to people. It is works of charity. What you fast from, you reserve such to support the poor amongst us. These are the three pillars of Lent – prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

As things stand, Nigeria is ranked 109th on the Global Hunger Index for 2023. In 2024, Nigeria is expected to see about 26.5 million people grappling with high levels of food insecurity, as disclosed by the government and its partners during the unveiling of the October 2023 Cadre Harmonisé analysis on food insecurity. When you mention fasting, are we really going into fasting, against the backdrop of prevailing hunger in society?

There is a difference between fasting and hunger. Basically, fasting means there is food and you stay away from it. On the other hand, even when you don’t have, you can still fast to structure the little that you have. Unfortunately, the Lord does not want us to go hungry but the leaders, those in power, they have been the cause of poverty in the land. But no one is immune from fasting. Fasting is not carried out based on because I don’t have, let me fast. It means you have not even given up anything. Those who have and those who do not have are encouraged to fast.

Based on observation, people are already engaging in works of charity. Communicants have already begun dropping offerings, while others are engaging in almsgiving and in good works. However, for those who would want to partake in such good works but don’t have money for charity, what do they do? There are a number of people who are hungry, broken, and they are nonetheless requested to fast. What does the church have to offer such people at a time of need?

First of all, there is a Latin adage that says, “Nemo dat quod non habet”, which literally means, “You cannot give what you do not have”. So, you want to do charity but you don’t have the money, the Lord knows you don’t have the money, so, it is fine. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who come to church for aid. They come to St. Vincent De Paul Society, as well as come to the parish office for assistance. We had a second collection for the poor and needy today (Wednesday) which is passed from the parish to the archdiocese and up to Abuja. It is distributed among the poor.

We try to help people but we do not amplify it. People sometimes think, “What does the church do?” because we don’t publicise it, but a lot of charity work is going on. Yes, it will not get to everyone but the ones we can touch we endeavour to do so.

Do you think this Lenten season would awaken a spiritual revival in the people?

Yes. That is why I said at the beginning that we have been prayerful but the prayers have become intensified. Last Sunday, we shared the Lenten task cards, they were five. One of them says, “I will visit the Blessed Sacrament every day of Lent”. Others are, “I will attend Mass daily”; “attend stations of the cross throughout Lent”; “read a chapter of scripture every day”. These are meant to help you achieve particular goals and to stick to such goals even after the Lenten season.