Catholics get when they give during Lent


Parents put a positive spin on sacrifice By Carol Scott

Josh Hawkins / Chicago Parent Jacob Vanderheyden portrays Jesus Christ in the Stations of the Cross at St. Edmund Church in Oak Park. He gave up ice cream for Lent.

With Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ" dominating the box office and the news, it's no secret that Christians now are observing the 40-day season of preparation called Lent that leads up to Easter.

For Roman Catholics, the rules of Lent used to be extremely strict. The observation was about repenting and soul-searching. Mary Jo Harney remembers growing up Catholic on Chicago's South Side. At that time, Catholicism was all about sacrifice-no meat ever on Fridays. During Lent, the time when Christians prepare for Easter, rules were followed to the letter, especially by those who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s.

But this is no longer your parents' Lent.

"Now we're asking people to take more charge of what they can do to turn their lives around and embrace the Gospel better," says Frank Koob, an educational director for the Archdiocese of Chicago. "I guess we give people credit these days for being able to figure some things out on their own."

Parents are moving toward crafting a different message for their children. They would prefer their kids look at what they can give to others rather than what they can give up.

Lent basics Lent, which this year began on Feb. 25, is the time all Christians-not just Catholics-prepare for the religion's most holy holiday, Easter, which this year falls on April 11.

Lent leads up to Holy Week, which is the seven days before Easter. Holy Week commemorates the last week in the life of Jesus Christ, a Jewish rabbi. Christians start the week with Palm Sunday to remember Christ's triumphant ride into Jerusalem when he was treated like a king. The week ends remembering when he was condemned, crucified and ultimately resurrected.

Christ's grisly death is marked on Good Friday, April 9 this year. Three days later, Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead to sit at God's right hand. Christ's resurrection, celebrated on Easter, is the foundation of Christianity.

In 1965, the Vatican, the governing body for Catholics, convened a meeting of bishops called the Second Vatican Council, known as Vatican II. That meeting brought dramatic changes to the Catholic Church that included allowing more people who are not priests to participate in the celebration of the Mass.

"Pre-Vatican II, Lent in North America had become a time of self-discipline for life improvement, penance for sins-giving up stuff," says Father James Halstead, chair of religious studies at DePaul University.

After Vatican II, "the culture gave away those notions of penance, de-emphasizing what's wrong with us and re-emphasizing self-improvement. Lent now has become a self-help time. The real emphasis now is to join a discussion group-‘I'm going to pray more. I'm going to get control of my eating and drinking habits,' " he says.

Now what? Harney, a Chicago resident, says she refocused her family's observation of Lent as her children Jimmy, 12, and Lizzie, 8, grew.

"I stress that you prepare, and you do something good during the time period instead of giving something up. I like to put a more positive spin on it," she says.

During Lent, Catholics age 14 and older abstain from eating meat on Fridays and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Harney's children observe the meatless Friday guidelines, but they don't fast. "I don't make a dinner for the kids and then one for my husband and I-we all just do pasta or fish."

Reframing Lent means it's a little bit more tricky to explain to younger children why fasting and meatless Fridays are important.

"In some ways, parents are a little more out on their own when it comes to describing what Lent is," says the Rev. Richard Fragomeni, associate professor of liturgy and preaching at the Catholic Theological Union. "There aren't some of the endearing traditions that go along with [Lent], as in Christmas and Advent. But you can't have Lent without Easter."

Harney, who has been involved with religious education at Old St. Patrick's Church in Chicago, stresses the positive. "I've done this activity for the entire period of Lent where, in a way similar to an Advent calendar, we create an Easter basket with an Easter egg for each day of Lent. For each egg, you [do] something positive each day."

Why Catholics fast Mary Stimming, a Riverside resident and mother of Michael, 7, Kathryn, 6, and Paul, 2, says her children adapt easily to her own dietary restrictions during Lent.

Stimming prepares meatless meals on Fridays and packs meatless lunches for Michael and Kathryn to take to school-even though her children are all under 14 and, therefore, aren't obliged to follow the restrictions.

When her children ask her about her own fasting, Stimming says she talks about the tradition in terms of their experience.

"It's a special practice for a special time of year. I'll say, ‘On your birthday, we eat certain things-a birthday cake. There are certain things that go along with different times, and for our community, this is one way to mark that time.' "

Stimming attends Ascension Parish in Oak Park, where her children are taught by Christine Ondrla, the parish's director of religious education. Ondrla says she attempts to explain fasting to the children by stressing Easter and generosity.

"We talk about what fasting means," she says. "A lot of them don't know that word. A lot of them equate it with giving up something. We try to say to them, ‘If you're going to give something up, what is the purpose of it? To what end?' Fasting really is connected with another portion of Lent, which is alms giving. If I do not eat candy, then what do I do? What becomes fuller in my life? So what can we do with the results of that fasting?"

Carol Brantley's two daughters, Katie, 11, and Kristin, 9, attend St. Pius V School in Chicago. "Because they go to Catholic school, they receive instruction about Lent and about fasting and traditions," she says. "I've told them that we fast not because God wants to see us miserable, but we fast because it helps us remember to be more like Christ-to make sacrifices."

"We try and teach our kids that that's important all year round, but [prayer and fasting] seem like a tangible way to make a special effort during Lent," she says.


Carol Scott is a writer in Evanston.



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