What does Lent mean to Catholics? A recent poll conducted by Nancy Coates and her staff left no doubt about young people’s perceptions.
"’When you give up something’ — that’s what they told us. Every class said the same thing," said Coates, who serves as co-coordinator of children’s and family faith formation at St. Paul of the Cross and St. Rose parishes in Honeoye Falls and Lima.
While the young people’s answer wasn’t necessarily wrong, neither certainly was it complete.
"We tried to explain that this is also a time to help other people and give of yourself. It’s not just giving up something," Coates said.
Since the early days of the church, Lenten sacrifice has combined prayer, fasting and almsgiving — but in recent history popular perception has focused almost exclusively on fasting and abstinence. "Prior to Vatican II, the impetus of the church was our own salvation — we needed to suffer to be purified. Fasting and abstinence made us suffer; therefore, we became better; and so, we are closer to salvation," explained Father Thomas Mull, pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Canandaigua.
Yet the Second Vatican Council stressed that prayer and almsgiving are equally vital, as we focus not only on ourselves, but on the world around us. Whereas giving up something — whether candy, coffee or cocktails — remains a common Lenten goal, numerous diocesan parishes are striving to add "do’s" to this season of "don’ts." This is accomplished through such activities as parish missions; lecture series; Bible study; gatherings of small Christian communities; and fundraising efforts for local, national and international causes.
Father Mull said the balance of prayer, fasting and almsgiving help Catholics achieve a communal Lenten experience that fasting and abstinence alone cannot provide.
"Individuals benefit from the ‘triple play’ by seeing (themselves among) many players in God’s plan of salvation," he said.
A nice example of almsgiving is being practiced by faith-formation students in Honeoye Falls and Lima, who are collecting funds to purchase music materials for students at Rochester City School No. 36. Yet Coates pointed out that almsgiving doesn’t need to be monetary, saying it could also mean "to do good deeds — watch your brother or sister, sweep the floors, shovel snow, pick up your toys. Just small, helpful deeds."
Father Mull added that "almsgiving, strictly speaking, is giving money and material objects to the poor and those in need. In its widest sense, it can be giving of ourselves to others through time, talent and treasure."
Such giving is taking place at All Saints Parish in Lansing, from which several adults will make a mission trip during Holy Week to San Lucas, Guatemala. They will be joined by students from Cornell University. Parishioners are donating money and supplies to aid in this effort.
Meanwhile, Churchville’s St. Vincent DePaul Parish is holding a program that combines all three Lenten priorities. Each Monday evening during Lent, parishioners gather for sung prayer, with a guest speaker to follow. Fasting is acknowledged through a simple supper of soup, bread and water preceding prayer. For almsgiving, containers are put out during supper to collect donations to Operation Rice Bowl.
St. Vincent DePaul is among approximately 100 diocesan parishes that participate in Operation Rice Bowl, a Catholic Relief Services program that raises funds for international relief and development and for local charities. Father Mull, whose parish heavily promotes Operation Rice Bowl, observed that the three Lenten goals can be accomplished through ORB involvement. "If you’re going to give up a meal, why not give the money saved to Operation Rice Bowl — and why not pray for the people (who benefit) as well?" he suggested.
Taking part in this program can enlighten donors well beyond the Lenten season, added Judy Taylor, diocesan Operation Rice Bowl coordinator.
"It kind of puts a face on hunger here and across the globe. I think the headlines will have a little more meaning," said Taylor, who is also director of advocacy and communications for diocesan Catholic Charities. "You might pay more attention — perhaps vote, write a letter."
Many options available
Parish initiatives are among many opportunities for going the extra mile at Lent. Among the other suggestions listed in recent parish bulletins: private prayer; praying as a family; attending weekday Mass or Stations of the Cross; receiving the sacrament of penance; offering prayers for people engaged in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults process; visiting the sick and homebound; saying kind words to others; and avoiding gossip and other hurtful talk.
Fasting and abstinence continues to have its place as well. Debbie Cretney, a parishioner of All Saints in Lansing, said she’s abstaining from chocolate this Lent and finds deeper meaning with the sacrifice than in childhood.
"I do find that wanting it and knowing I can’t have it — there is something spiritual about that. As a kid it was more of a thing everyone talked about; more of a bragging right. Now it’s become more personal," Cretney said, explaining that when her temptation to eat chocolate arises, it opens the door to a conversation with Jesus.
Charlotte Bruney, pastoral administrator of St. Vincent DePaul, agreed that Lenten sacrifice is best when it provides spiritual growth in preparation for Easter. "The season is not about self-denial for the sake of self-denial," she said.
Father Patrick Van Durme, pastor of Steuben County’s Our Lady of the Valley Parish, picked up on this point in a recent bulletin column. "If we abstain from meals on certain days and then stay up until 12:01 and eat ourselves sick we certainly have not understood what Lent is about," he wrote, adding that the same would hold true if we ordered a pricey fish dinner on a day of abstinence from meat, or gave up coffee for Lent "and then become a monster to our families and our co-workers."
How thoroughly has the broadened awareness of Lent taken hold? Apparently there’s still work to be done, if the youths in Honeoye Falls and Lima are any indication. And if children are too narrowly focused on fasting and abstinence, then parents, also, likely need enlightenment about prayer and almsgiving, Coates said.
"Maybe they never learned it that way either," she said.
"Old traditions die hard," Bruney remarked.
On the other hand, Father Mull ventured that people may be reluctant to expand their Lenten scope because this would require more creative thinking and a greater time commitment.
"The bottom line is that fasting is the easiest thing to do, when you think about it," Father Mull remarked. "Prayer, it takes time to get into it. A financial commitment, or to give your time away, also requires some thought."
So fasting and abstinence, which are linked to suffering, have become the easiest option? Ironic, but perhaps true in our increasingly fast-paced society. Yet Cretney, who arises early each morning to read for a Lenten book group at her parish, maintains that her sacrifice pays spiritual dividends.
"It’s not hard to get up when you know you’re getting up for that," Cretney said, adding that she has begun to awaken before the alarm goes off — and isn’t so sure that her actual alarm isn’t the Holy Spirit.
"It’s almost like a nudging," she said.
How Lent totals upAt one time, arriving at the 40 days of Lent was simple math: Count the 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday, subtracting the six Sundays because they’re non-fasting days.
But the formula got trickier in 1969, when the Vatican issued General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, declaring that Lent "runs from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord’s Supper exclusive" — meaning Lent ends on Holy Thursday.
So, is Lent now only 38 days long? Well, yes and no, according to Father Thomas Mull, pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Canandaigua. He said the norm was implemented to increase focus on the Triduum, the three-day period beginning Holy Thursday — but the Lenten season still extends to Holy Saturday. If anything, Father Mull added, the faithful’s Lenten sacrifices should be heightened, not discontinued, during the Triduum.
"It’s sort of a deeper three days to bring us to Easter. We should be even more intensely praying, fasting and giving alms," Father Mull said.
The rearrangement stemmed from the Second Vatican Council’s desire to restore a tradition of the ancient church, for which Lent lasted only three days, while also continuing observance of Jesus’ 40 days of prayer and fasting in the desert. Incorporating both aspects into the same time frame "combined the best of both worlds," said Father Mull, who formerly served as director of the diocesan Office of Liturgy.
Yet 36 years after this change, uncertainty apparently remains about the final day of Lent. Maria Gill, director of public relations at Elmira Notre Dame High School, said she drew a wide range of responses while recently compiling a Lenten calendar for a newsletter.
"After looking online and asking around, I got everything from Wednesday (of Holy Week) through Easter Sunday," she said.
Father Mull acknowledged that confusion still abounds "because it’s not the easiest thing to explain."
Many priests "would say Lent ends Holy Saturday night. If you say that it ends Holy Thursday, but that you can’t start eating your candy and smoking your cigarettes yet … it’s easier just to say ‘stop fasting on Holy Saturday,’" he remarked.