by Msgr. Cuong M. Pham
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday when the faithful are marked on the forehead with ashes, as a reminder that we begin and end our earthly existence as dust and ashes. As we go through these very holy days of the Church Year, the Church’s official liturgies offer many rich insights into the meaning of the season and how it should change us.
However, apart from the activities that go on in the church or at the parish level, most people have little else to do during the week that helps them maximize the spiritual benefits of the season. In this article, I’d like to suggest some ideas to families, especially those with little children, that they may live the Lenten time more meaningfully. Lent should not be only about the individual and his or her own conversion. It should be a communal journey in which everyone walks together and is engaged by one another. Families may find themselves doing some of these already. I welcome any additional suggestions and comments you might have about living the season of Lent in your own families. Customs differ among different cultural groups, but there are certain things that can apply universally.
So we have already begun Lent this year. The focus of our Lenten journey is almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Externally, we are encouraged to “give up” some mundane things in order to draw nearer to God. How about a dessert-free day, or a dessert-free week? How about a TV-free week? If you give up dessert, videos, or anything that costs, you could take the money your family saves, and help someone who doesn’t have a home or job. Other ideas include giving up smoking, T.V., loud music, cookies, caffeine, junk food, alcohol, candy, etc. Interiorly, we are called to give up sinful activities, habitual vices, or addictions. How about giving up the habit of yelling at others, lying, making excuses for not attending Mass, not paying attention to your health or that of others? The list can go on with things such as greed, anger, resentment, dishonesty, bad speech, immodest dress, judgmental attitude, prejudice, lust, gluttony, negativism, or just plain laziness.
Spiritually, Lent is a time of renewal. We are encouraged to pray together with the family at least once a day. If this is not a family habit, Lent is a great time to start. Perhaps a moment of prayer can be observed at the dinner table before everyone leaves. Everyone should strive to attend one extra Mass during the week, in addition to the regular Sunday attendance. If this is not possible, visiting the Blessed Sacrament for a few minutes during the day is also good. This means extra sacrifice in finding time for God amid our busy schedules.
Regarding fasting and abstinence, parents should explain to their kids these practices, especially on Fridays, since Our Lord was crucified on a Friday. Catholics eat no meat on the Fridays of Lent. Children can help in coming up with some menu ideas, which can be quite creative. Menus such as macaroni and cheese, pasta with meatless tomato sauce, scrambled eggs and toast, soup and grilled cheese, rice and bean casserole, tofu and tomato sauce, different types of soups, etc. are great for days of fasting and abstinence.
For the purpose of being concrete, the following is a tentative Lenten calendar that families might want to give a try. Make it a project for the whole family. You may feel that all the things suggested here are overwhelming! Just begin with the one that best suits your family. Keep the others in mind for next year.
First Sunday: Give Thanks!
- Eucharist means “giving thanks”. Catholics are Eucharistic people. This means that we give thanks as part of who we are and what we believe in.
- This week, tell what each family member is thankful for at family prayer time. Be sure to include special people, food, shelter, fresh air, a free country, the gift of our faith and our parish, and God’s intervention in difficult problems.
- Attend at least one extra Mass during the week
- Light a votive candle in the church in thanksgiving.
- Request a Mass card for a Mass of Thanksgiving
- Write a Thank You note to an older or lonely person.
Second Sunday: Forgive!
- We should always forgive because God always forgives us. Besides, forgiving is doing yourself a favor. You are liberating yourself from grudges, hostility, and hatred.
- This week, search your hearts for the courage to forgive someone. Talk with the family about the need to forgive others and also to forgive ourselves.
- Remember that God our Father forgives us ALL the time.
- Discuss the special gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation: its purpose, and the end result: We are closer to God.
- Go to Confession as a family: Mom and Dad set the example for the children.
- Write a note to someone you have hurt. Say that you are sorry and ask for forgiveness.
Third Sunday: Abstain
- The word abstinence traditionally refers to avoiding meat. However, its meaning is so much richer than that.
- How about avoiding snacks and alcohol? For the kids (and maybe the adults), how about abstaining from T.V., video games, candy, junk food, and computer games. Try a combination or variation of the things I have suggested earlier in this article.
- What else could you abstain from, especially for the adults among us?
- Look for meatless recipes in cookbooks. Have the kids select a couple of them to try. They can help in preparing the meal.
- Instead of renting a movie, put the money in your Lenten box or jar. Play a board game together as a family or read aloud from a good spiritual storybook.
- Remind children that other people have less than we do. Collect the coins and bring them to the parish office during the week or to church on Sunday. Have the kids go look for coins to put in the poor boxes at our church doors.
Fourth Sunday: Charity
- Acts of charity, besides being a fruit of the Holy Spirit, are a way to imitate Christ and bring us closer to the Lord.
- Brainstorm to see what kind deeds everyone can do.
- Be helpful to their parents and teacher.
- Call a grandparent to say “I love you.”
- Invite an unpopular child to join your games.
- Shovel your neighbor’s walkway or driveway
- Set the table, load the dishwasher, or sweep the floor.
- Fold some laundry, put away some laundry.
- Run an errand for a neighbor.
- Read a story to a younger sibling.
- Be patient with someone who frustrates or annoys you.
- Give one of your toys to another sibling or friend.
Fifth Sunday: Faith
- If we trust in God, everything will work out. Sounds simple, yet it is difficult to stop worrying about what might happen.
- Light a candle and pray that God helps deepen your faith.
- Go back over and read Sunday’s readings together.
- Think of a quality you have that could be developed and focus on it during this week, for example, doing your work joyfully, practicing the piano without being told, being responsible, being punctual.
- Hug your Mom and your Dad.
- Hug your kids. Tell them that you have faith in them.
- Print or decorate a sheet of paper with the word F.A.I.T.H. Put it up where the family can see it.
Palm (Passion) Sunday and Holy Week: Pray
- We are entering the holiest week of the Church Year. With a focus on prayer, we can properly prepare our hearts for the Triduum and Easter Sunday.
- Invite someone who is not going to Church regularly to join your family this week at Mass.
- On Passion Sunday night, place your palms on the supper table as a reminder for the coming week of Jesus’ constant presence in our lives.
- During the Easter Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday), cut out T.V., radio, non-religious music, video games, and computer games. If you have cablevision, Direct T.V. or satellite dish, tune in to EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network) and our Diocese’s NET TV Channel for programs that enrich your family’s Holy Week.
- Attend ALL three days’ Mass and services in church together: Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday, Veneration of the Crucified Lord on Holy Saturday, Easter Vigil Mass on Saturday evening, and Easter Sunday Masses.
- Teach your children to say the Rosary (if they don’t already know). Say a decade each night this week during family prayer time. Pray for an end to violence towards human life. Pray for peace in the Ukraine.
- Light a candle and have the children take turns creating simple prayers, either at the supper table, family prayer time, or at bedtime. Remind them that God loves to hear from His loved ones on a regular basis. He also hears all prayers, no matter how small or humble.
- Bless each child on the forehead with the Sign of the Cross as they go to sleep. Say:“May God bless you and keep you safe. Amen.” The children can also make the Sign of the Cross on the forehead of each other.
- Take your children to Church to pray the Stations of the Cross this week on Good Friday. Tell them that is a special form of devotion.
- Go to Confession this week as a family. Encourage each family member to do an examination of conscience beforehand. Follow the bulletin to find out when Penance is offered in our parish and other neighboring parishes.
Easter Sunday: Rejoice!
- The long Lenten journey is over and we have reached the end of our road. The joy of Easter should fill the hearts and homes of all believers. Be sure to buy lily flowers this week.
- Make name cards for dinner guests and family members for the Easter Feast. Draw a lamb, a cross, or the risen Lord (if you are really artistic!). Older children will enjoy experimenting with calligraphy for the names.
- Come early as a family to Mass. Have the children bring the money collected from the family’s Lenten box or jar with them as their offering for the poor. If it is heavy, bring it straight to the parish office.
- Continue to celebrate the greatest Feast of the whole year in other creative ways. Easter is not only a day; it is a whole season. Keep the good practices that you have developed during Lent, such as praying together, going to Mass every Sunday and during the week.
- Encourage children to become involved in the parish. They can join groups appropriate for their age and talent. Give them an example by considering volunteering your time in some parish ministry. Meet new people and learn new ideas.
The above ideas have been collected both from the books below and from my own family traditions. Feel free to share this article with your friends and coworkers. Spread the word! Have a great Lenten Season and may your family become more united, more loving, more prayerful during this project that you will undertake together!
A Journey with Jesus; Family Prayers for Lent by Gwen Costello, Twenty-Third Publication.
Lent Begins at Home; Family Prayers and Activities by Pat and Rosemary Ryan, Liguori Publications.
Building Family through Lent by Lisa Bellecci-Saint Romain, Liguori Publications.