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Toward a Better Lent

What will you do in this season of penance?

By Brian Caulfield, FFG Editor

It used to be easy. When the discipline of Lent was clear and severe, with fasting required for nearly the full 40 days, Catholics knew who we were and what needed to be done. We were a people who sacrificed, who “offered it up,” and kept the fish stores busy on meatless Fridays. Sacrifice was part of our religious and cultural identity, even if few of us could keep the rules perfectly. But we did the best we could or else joined the long lines of Saturday Confession.

Today, with few rules and many conflicting views on how best to observe the Lenten season, Catholics are left largely to our own devices. While there was some wisdom in the Church lessening the disciplines which had become for many a rote system of “giving up something,” we often struggle to decide for ourselves what exactly we should be doing, or not doing, during these 40 days in preparation for Good Friday and Easter. As with New Year’s resolutions, we are often caught short of ideas when the time comes and may panic when we go for our ashes on Wednesday (March 1 this year). Yet if we keep in mind the basics of Lent—prayer, fasting and almsgiving—the process should be less vexing.

Should we give up chocolate, sweets, dessert, coffee or another indulgence or bad habit? Maybe we need to add daily Mass, recitation of the rosary, reading a Bible passage, volunteering at a soup kitchen or giving alms in the form of money or time. A penance fit for our digital age is to withdraw from Facebook and other social media for Lent, or simpler sacrifices such as turning off the phone during dinner and other family times.

Remember that the goal of Lent is not to test your will power—though will power is required – or become a lean, mean “spiritual athlete.” Neither is it a time for pride over being a better ascetic than our spouse or neighbor. The reason for sacrifice is to move closer to Christ in his suffering and death, so that we may also be united with him in his resurrection. As St. Paul wrote: “If we have died with him, we will also live with him” (2 Tm 2:11).

If you are looking for a better Lent for you and your family, a good place to start is at the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which provides day-by-day suggestions on how to make the season more spiritual and meaningful.

As we do each year at Fathers for Good, we also ask readers to share with us what they are doing for Lent. Use the comment box below to give some details on what you are giving up, adding or planning to do for Lent.