How to Observe Septuagesima the Catholic Way

Editor’s Notes:
  • A recent Ask Father episode by Fr. Michael Rodríguez addressed this subject (Rumble, YouTube, Podcast).
  • The Fatima Center encourages all Catholics to pray the Novena of Reparation to the Holy Face of Jesus on Feb. 20-28. Get all the resources you need for this novena at the event page on our website.

Prepare for Lent

Septuagesima is the two-and-a-half-week period of time before the start of Lent traditionally observed as a time of preparation for the sacrificial nature of Lent. Celebrated on the Third Sunday before the First Sunday in Lent, Septuagesima is both the name of this third Sunday before Lent’s beginning as well as the liturgical season itself that runs from this day up until Ash Wednesday. The season of Septuagesima comprises the Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. The Fourth Council of Orleans in 541 AD documents the existence of this season.

This time, informally called “Pre-Lent,” is a time for us to focus on the need for a Savior. It is a time to prepare a Lenten prayer schedule so that we can determine which extra devotions and Masses we will go to in Lent. It is a time to begin weaning ourselves from food so that we may more easily observe the strictest fast during Lent.

Farewell to the Alleluia

Starting with First Vespers of Septuagesima, which is prayed on the Saturday evening before Septuagesima Sunday, the Alleluia ceases to be said until we proclaim Our Lord’s Resurrection. There is no exception. At First Vespers of Septuagesima Sunday, two Alleluia’s are added to the closing verse of Benedicamus Domino and its response, Deo gratias, as during the Easter Octave. Starting with Compline, the word Alleluia is no longer said until the Easter Vigil and the proclamation of the Lord’s Resurrection. As a result, many monasteries and some parishes began the custom of physically burying a banner with the word Alleluia and only unearthing it on Easter. Some places also adopted rather elaborate ‘farewell to Alleluia’ ceremonies.

There are other noticeable changes in the Church’s liturgy with the beginning of Septuagesima. Violet vestments are worn, except on feasts, from Septuagesima Sunday until Holy Thursday. As during Advent and Lent, the Gloria and Te Deum are no longer said on Sundays.

Pre-Lenten Fasting

Septuagesima is also an appropriate time for us to begin preparing our bodies for the upcoming Lenten fast by incorporating some fasting into our routine. In some places a custom of observing a fast of devotion, in anticipation of and in preparation for the Great Lenten fast, was observed, as Father Weiser mentions in his Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs:

“This preparatory time of pre-Lent in the Latin Church was suggested by the practice of the Byzantine Church, which started its great fast earlier, because their ‘forty days’ did not include Saturdays. Saint Maximum (465 AD), Bishop of Turin, mentioned the practice in one of his sermons. It is a pious custom, he said, to keep a fast of devotion (not of obligation) before the start of Lent.”

As we are on the threshold of the beginning of the holy season of Lent, we should in a special way recall the importance of observing some penance even in the days before Lent.

Carnival – the Catholic Way

For those who plan to keep the true Lenten fast (i.e., fasting for all forty weekdays of Lent and abstaining from all meat and all animal products all forty days of Lent and on all Sundays), Fat Tuesday represents one last day of merriment. Unfortunately, this day has grown into debauchery by many who hardly fast at all during Lent. For this reason, while we can observe Fat Tuesday by enjoying food – including Polish paczkis, which are customarily eaten on this day – we should ensure that our merriment never turns into gluttony. Some cultures – like the English – adopted the custom of eating pancakes on Fat Tuesday – earning it the nickname of “Pancake Tuesday.” This custom, like the Polish one, was observed because for centuries the use of any lacticinia (i.e., animal byproducts like cheese, butter, milk or eggs) was forbidden for the entirety of Lent. We should consider adopting a similar observance this year with our Lenten fast.

Unfortunately, over time Carnival season grew to excess. Dom Guéranger wrote of the excesses and sinfulness of Mardi Gras in his own time. As a result of the excesses of Fat Tuesday and the carnival season, the Church instituted the practice of observing the 40 Forty Hours Devotion. Father Weiser remarks:

“In order to encourage the faithful to atone in prayer and penance for the many excesses and scandals committed at carnival time, Pope Benedict XIV, in 1748, instituted a special devotion for the three days preceding Lent, called ‘Forty Hours of Carnival,’ which is held in many churches of Europe and America, in places where carnival frolics are of general and long-standing tradition. The Blessed Sacrament is exposed all day Monday and Tuesday, and devotions are held in the evening, followed by the Eucharistic benediction.”

Novena of Reparation to the Holy Face

The Church also instituted the Votive Feast of the Holy Face of Our Lord Jesus Christ Deformed in the Passion for the Tuesday after Quinquagesima (i.e., Fat Tuesday) as a means of making reparation for the sins of Mardi Gras. In fact, our Blessed Lord Himself asked for such reparation to His Holy Face in an apparition to Mother Pierina in 1938:

“See how I suffer. Nevertheless, I am understood by so few. What ingratitude on the part of those who say they love Me. I have given My Heart as a sensible object of My great love for man, and I give My Face as a sensible object of My Sorrow for the sins of man. I desire that It be honored by a special feast on Tuesday in Quinquagesima. The feast will be preceded by a novena in which the faithful make reparation to Me, uniting themselves with My sorrow.”

To this end, the praying of the Golden Arrow prayer during Septuagesima has become an annual practice for some.

Go to Confession

The name “Shrove Tuesday” for Fat Tuesday expresses the ancient practice of the faithful to go to Confession on the day before Ash Wednesday. Ælfric of Eynsham’s “Ecclesiastical Institutes” from c. 1000 AD states: “In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do [in the way of penance].” Father Weiser similarly remarks, “In preparation for Lent the faithful in medieval times used to go to confession on Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. From this practice, that day became known as ‘Shrove Tuesday’ (the day on which people are shriven from sins).”

Prepare for Lent as a Family

Lent, with its three-fold foundation of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, provides Catholics with a grace-filled opportunity to atone for sin and answer Our Lord and Our Lady’s call for penance. To this end, Lent has been called the “tithe of the year.”

Preparing for Lent requires a plan which addresses all three pillars. To start your preparation, see a list of 20 Pious Practices for Lent and consider adopting some of them. Commit to your resolutions by writing them down in a Lenten preparation guide, ensuring that you cover prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to a greater degree than required by Church law.

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