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Prayer, Penance, Fasting, Almsgiving: A Family Guide to Lent

Lent is a season in which we pause to examine our lives in preparation for Holy Week, when we will join in Christ’s journey to the cross and share in the victory of his resurrection. It is also a good time for families as well to re-orient themselves and consider the priorities that sometimes get lost in the business of everyday life. Let's examine four traditional themes of Lent (prayer, penance, fasting and almsgiving) and offer some ways to share in these themes as a family:

Prayer: The forty days of Lent remind us of Jesus’ forty days in the desert, which he spent in prayer to God as he prepared for his public ministry (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 540). Lent is an excellent time to re-commit to family prayer. One possibility is to have a time each day in which the family gathers and each member says something to God, followed by a traditional prayer such as the Our Father. You might wish to consider the “forms of prayer” discussed in the Catechism (2644; blessing, petition, intercession, thanksgiving, and praise) as a starting point. For example, if you choose thanksgiving, everyone in the family would name something they wish to thank God for, and after each prayer, the family could respond, “Thank you, God.” If you choose “petition,” each member in the family could pray for a need, and the family could respond (as in the Mass), “Lord, hear our prayer.” If possible, choose a special area of your home for prayer, decorate it with some religious articles such as a crucifix, religious statues, etc., and light a candle when prayer time begins.

Penance: Lent is traditionally a time ofPenance and Reconciliation in the Church. If your parish has a communal Penance service, it might be good to attend as a family, even if your child is not quite old enough to celebrate the sacrament. For family members who have had their first confession, it’s a good opportunity to celebrate God’s gift of forgiveness once again, and recommit our lives to him. It makes a strong impression on children to see their parents and other adults go to confession, and this is one of the few times they can actually see it in action. Seeing mom and dad acknowledge their own shortcomings and God’s place in their life is a powerful sign that their really is a God and that all of us are called to follow him. It is also a great reminder that God loves us no matter what. Make this also a season to practice a spirit of reconciliation in the family. Are their wrongs that need to be discussed and forgiven? Model this for your children and encourage them to follow your example with siblings and others.

Fasting: Fasting on Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday are not required for young children, but it’s good even for elementary school-age kids to have an opportunity to make a small sacrifice (“give up something”) at this time. Doing so can help the young child gain delay of gratification and self-control skills, which psychological research shows are closely related to success in work and relationships. In short, fasting builds our self-discipline. Encourage younger children to choose something they can do without for Lent. (It should be something they enjoy – no giving up broccoli if that’s not a favorite food!) Perhaps a particular TV program or toy would be appropriate. Explain that we choose to give up something we like during Lent so we can remember how Jesus gave his whole life for us, and also to help us grow in self-control.

Almsgiving: Lent is a timeto make a special effort to give our time, talent, and treasure. Food pantries that serve the poor are often sorely in need of restocking at this time, so perhaps the family can choose some canned goods and other non-perishables to give away (again, give some of the good stuff as well). Perhaps the children and teens in the family can set aside some money they would have used to buy candy or other non-essentials, and donate this to Catholic Relief Services or some other charity. Also, consider what the family may be able to do together to serve the parish or community. Volunteer to stuff the bulletins at your parish, or stay after Mass to help tidy up. Go on a “neighborhood cleanup,” taking a trash bag and collecting litter from the sidewalks, streets or local park.

Lent is a wonderful time to experience family renewal as we prepare to celebrate the great fifty of Easter. May God bless you and your family during this special season.

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