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Experiencing Lent at Every Age: A Developmental Guide to Lenten Practices

If you would like to download a reproducible pdf-version of this article, click here.

In the Catholic Church, Lent is a very special season of “getting ready.” We are called during this time to make ourselves ready to celebrate the greatest mystery of our faith – the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because this mystery is so central to our faith, it’s important that this special time of year be accessible to Catholics of all ages.
Lent is also a time when we are called to stop and allow the Christian mystery to touch our daily lives once again. It’s easy for us to get into our everyday routines and forget that Christianity is not just about what we do on Sunday mornings, but how we live each moment. Nowhere is this more important than at home with our family- the domestic Church.
A proper experience of Lent in the home depends upon the ages and developmental levels of each family member, but centers around three basic Christian practices – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The following is an age-by-age guide to celebrating Lent at home:
Preschool-age children (0-5):
Prayer: This is a good time to renew our commitment to daily family prayer. We know that we should prayer together regularly as a family, but we often let our hectic schedules get in the way of regular family prayer. For preschool-age children, short and simple prayers are best. Because prayer is conversation with God, we want children to understand what they are praying and mean what they pray. The sign of the cross and other short simple prayers are a good start for children this age. We also want to assist them in praying in their own words.  Creating a simple family altar with a few sacred items such as a crucifix (nothing too gory for children this age), a candle and a few other sacred objects can provide a focal point for family prayer where children can visit each day and say, “I love you, Jesus.”
Fasting: Preschool-age children are not required to fast, but they might benefit from the experience of the transition between scaled-down family meals and celebrations during Lent and the more festive season of Easter. Use Lent as a time to plan more simple meals and family activities – for example, a soup and salad dinner and family game night, versus dinner at a restaurant and a family outing.
Almsgiving: Because children this age are very concrete and need to experience something to understand it well, the meaning of giving money can sometimes be lost on them (and besides, they can’t do much to earn money anyway). For this reason, simple acts of service like visiting a home-bound family member or drawing pictures for a teacher or family friend can help the preschooler have some experience of giving to others.
Elementary School age children (6-12): 
Prayer: A mealtime prayer or Scripture can help children this age experience this aspect of Lent. Allowing children a turn to lead the family in prayer can be a good way to engage children. Many parishes and dioceses distribute Lenten prayers for before and after meals, and others are available online. 
Fasting: While fasting is not a requirement for children this age, it is good for them to begin to experience “giving something up” for the good of someone else. For example, a child who usually gets candy or s treat when shopping or going out to eat can be encouraged to forego that special treat and donate the money to the poor (or put it in a Lenten offering box). 
Almsgiving: Parents may wish to consider offering children this age odd jobs they can use to earn extra money to donate tot he poor. Or better yet, children could use their earnings to purchase canned goods to donate to local food pantries, many of which experience decreased donations during this season of the year.
Teens (13-18):
Prayer: Encourage teens to keep a prayer journal during Lent, either in written form, or online (e.g., a Facebook entry with one thing they are thankful for each day of Lent). Parents might also wish to encourage teens to take a leadership role in preparing prayer experiences for the family. Also, consider attending Stations of the Cross on Fridays of Lent.
Teens ages 14 and up have reached the age in which they are asked to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all Fridays of Lent. Those 18 and older are also asked to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In addition to these disciplines,  encourage your teen to think creatively, and to give up something that truly is a sacrifice, and also to make a commitment they can uphold. Self-sacrifice is sometimes frowned upon in contemporary popular culture, but the self-discipline that is gained by practicing delay of gratification is a valuable asset in achieving most anything worthwhile.
Almsgiving: Encourage your teen to put aside a portion of his or her allowance (or earnings for a part-time job) to a charity or cause about which he or she feels passionate. Teens are also sometimes able to volunteer their time and talents to assist others. Depending on your teen’s interests and abilities, a gift of service would be another way to experience this season.
No matter what our age, Lent is an important time to re-focus, to prepare to grow in new ways as we experience the message and meaning of our Faith. May God bless you and your family as you keep this important season in the life of our Church.

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.

Help in Vanuatu

Dear Friends,

Although we have heard very little about it, a category 5 hurricane (called Cyclones in the Pacific) directly hit the small island nation of Vanuatu last week. This country is one of the poorest and most vulnerable on earth, and many of its inhabitants have lost everything. There is extreme concern about starvation and disease in the coming days and weeks. I just made a donation for relief in Vanuatu, and I encourage you to do the same. Because the inhabitants of Vanuatu have such simple lifestyles, any money you could give would go a long way to help them. In the Catholic Church, Lent is the season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in which we prepare to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Please consider giving even a very small amount to help the inhabitants of Vanuatu "resurrect" their lives after so much suffering.


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