We are all probably familiar with the “triple crowns” of traditional Lenten practices: almsgiving, prayer and fasting.

For those of us burdened by shorter memory, the Gospel for Ash Wednesday makes a point of reciting them again each year (Mt 6:1-6.16-18) … so as a result, we who were signed with 2015 ashes just yesterday heard them once more.

Unfortunately, in Lent our radically individualistic American culture tends to concentrate on personal practices alone; our penances are usually restricted to individual tastes and sometimes merely selfish needs.

Too often, for example, we give up desserts or cocktails because we need to shed a few pounds anyway. A sense of the larger society escapes our consciousness.

As a matter of fact, however (as I invariably point out each Ash Wednesday), the generous distribution of ashes, ironically immediately after the Gospel’s admonition to “wash our faces lest anyone know we are fasting,” might signify we are publicly proclaiming membership in an entire church community which will be different come Easter. Talk about an “in your face” gesture.

Without such a more social component to our penitential conversion, however, the season isn’t a truly Catholic Lent.

So Lent is a time to give serious thought to where our entire American society needs to change and be converted to the Gospel. It is a special kairos of grace for offering a moral critique to the world in which we live — and to which we are sent.

An ancient practice no one seems to mention these days is the selection of a special saintly figure from the past to serve as a mentor and fellow pilgrim for the Lenten season … a personal trainer or guide, if you will. This year for myself I choose the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador.

Five years ago during Lent of 2010, I made a retreat at his tomb in the city of San Salvador in Central America. It was the 30th anniversary of his assassination. I was strongly advised it might still be too dangerous for an individual American traveler. I felt summoned by grace, however, and went. Armed military were everywhere in the city, especially encircling the cathedral in whose basement crypt he is buried … still surrounded each day by fresh flowers.

The echoes of his voice, begging the government to stop persecuting the poor for their efforts to seek freedom from economic injustice and political oppression, still seemed to resonate through the streets and plazas.  

I also spent a large portion of one day in prayer at the hospital chapel where he was martyred. Before leaving, I went up to the altar and kissed it as he did at the beginning of Mass just moments before being killed by a sniper’s bullet from the last pew. That brief and simple but very human gesture of personal association with the Paschal mystery suddenly became profound and was transformed forever. I have never been able to kiss an altar the same way again.

Oscar Romero’s life was a remarkable tale of personal, social conversion, initially sparked by the assassination of a fine priest friend of his, brutally killed by government troops for working with the poor in the Archdiocese of San Salvador.

The archbishop suddenly saw his familiar world from a new and frightening perspective. From being a good pastor comfortable with the rhythm of solid Catholic life, even amid political turmoil, his voice took on new urgency as he begged the civil government of his nation to turn guns into plowshares and to help the poor rather than frighten and oppress them.

He saw the blood of the poor everywhere; it was not imaginary. His voice was often dismissed by the wealthy landowners as a communistic rant, but millions listened to his Sunday radio homilies from the cathedral.

Obviously, our United States is significantly different from the country in which Oscar Romero preached the Gospel and celebrated the sacraments 35 years ago, but we have our own moral challenges, our own forms of violence (inner-city as well as suburban), and indeed our own sins … national as well as individual.

The violence which permeates our American culture and entertainment is no less lethal. God’s poor, however, are everywhere, and our civil structures need conversion just as much as our individual human hearts. Our entire nation should be different by Easter, too.

On Ash Wednesday this year I asked the saintly martyred archbishop to look over my shoulder as I peer out the window or into the mirror, and to tell me clearly and kindly what he sees must yet change if Christ’s message against violence is to come alive among us …  

Whatever might be contrary to the Gospel should be different by Easter.

Once again, with the ashes of Lent comes the church’s annual admonition: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”