By: Michael Monshau, OP
Michael Monshau, OP
Professor of Liturgy, Homiletics and Spirituality at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas, in Rome
Drawing strength from a shared experience
Do you need Lent this year or are you planning on doing without it, or don't you think about such things ahead of time at all? God has called you to holiness, which is another way of saying that He has invited you into intimate friendship with Him. Lent is a good time to invest more deeply into that friendship. How will you be investing yourself more radically into that friendship this Lent? Will your experience of Lent be a rather personal and private affair, or can it be a family project in your home? Will friends be included? Will Lenten activities at your parish figure into your plans? What will Lent be like for you this year?
Most observers of human life tell us that the best way to stay faithful to any project, especially a challenging one, is to engage that project in the company of others. That is precisely why Lent is such a good time to attend to one's friendship with God; as a Christian, you are surrounded by a whole world of other Christians trying to do exactly the same thing at that same time: grow in holiness. The designation of this intensely spiritual period of forty days suggests the likelihood that companions for this journey are more readily available than at any other time of the year. So before beginning to identify your Lenten project, whether it will be a commitment to scheduledstudy of the Catechism, a determination to attend daily Mass or spend time each day in front of the Eucharistic Lord in the tabernacle, or to engage in some penance or act of charity, perhaps the most helpful strategy will be to determine who could be the best partner(s) or support system in helping you to remain faithful to your Lenten journey.
An oft-forgotten but built-in Lenten support system for many people is the family. Family life cannot be overstated as one of the most typical situations through which God reaches out to us. During his remarks at the Sunday Angelus on the recent feast of the Holy Family (27 December), the Holy Father remarked that "God had chosen to reveal Himself by being born into a human family and the human family thus became an icon of God! God is the Trinity". Elsewhere in the same address the Holy Father instructed, "The human family, in a certain sense, is an icon of the Trinity because of its interpersonal love and the fruitfulness of this love". The Pope also noted, "Having come into the world, into the heart of a family, God shows that this institution is a sure path on which to encounter and come to know Him, as well as an ongoing call to work for the unity of all people centred on love". "Indeed, the family is the best school at which to learn to live out those values which give dignity to the person and greatness to peoples. In the family sorrows and joys are shared, since all feel enveloped in the love that prevails at home, a love that stems from the mere fact of belonging to the same family".
This is not a new theme for the Holy Father. Glancing back to 2005, one recalls that His Holiness wrote to the participants of the Fifth World Meeting of Families in Valencia, Spain, saying, "Today more than ever, the Christian family has a very noble mission that it cannot shirk: the transmission of the faith, which involves the gift of self to Jesus Christ who died and rose, and insertion into the Ecclesial Community". Can there be any doubt, then, that one of the surest ways to experience the season of Lent fruitfully this year will be to plan on making Lent a family project. Plan Lenten activities for the whole family (and include family members who live in different households: grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, married siblings, and so forth).
One may ask, "How can this be done?" Another might point out, "The idea sounds interesting, but what would it look like? We have so many different schedules; we don't easily discuss matters of faith in our home; the youngsters aren't interested, or, the youngsters are interested but their elders aren't". The famous Rosary priest, the late Fr Patrick Peyton, CSC, made popular the adage, "The family that prays together, stays together". Prayer, and in fact, any sort of shared devotional experience, has enormous potential for bonding families closer together. With this motivation, perhaps some of the following suggestions can work for your family this Lent, or perhaps they can serve as ideas out of which your family can create some of its own Lenten practices, practices that might become long-standing family traditions in the years to come.
To begin with, enter into Lent with the universal Church. At all costs, try to attend Mass together as a family on Ash Wednesday and receive ashes. The mere fact that all have shared in this experience can't help but become part of conversation later in the day. Since Ash Wednesday is a day of fast and abstinence, plan the family menu for that day together, reinforcing that this penance is something we do because we are Catholics. The young will want to ask more about the reasons for this practice; be prepared to answer them correctly.
Shared menu planning can actually become a family project for all of the Fridays in Lent, which are days of abstinence. Observing the Church's regulations in this way will teach the young (and perhaps remind the elders) of the difference between fast and abstinence, the requirements and the reasons for each.
Can the family choose a common charity they wish to support during Lent? Discussing the reasons for this and the possibilities will be a catechetical and a bonding exercise; family members will hear one another express personal values as they promote or discourage donating family support to various needy causes. It will be important to contribute to a Church-related entity so that the spiritual dimension of this act of charity is not obscured.
What we do, we do as people of faith, called by Jesus Christ. Encouraging the setting aside of some allowance money or consciously eating simpler fare at a weekly meal so that the money ordinarily appropriated for the meal can be given away, can be a meaningful common project shared by parents and children. A "donation bank" prominently displayed somewhere in the home, ready to receive whatever donations individual family members choose to contribute can help the family to center on this act of charity throughout the season.
Can the generosity transcend a financial offering? Family members might collaborate on acts of service or volunteer labor they can contribute to a neighbor in need or to a local service agency. There are always dishes needing washing wherever Mother Theresa's Missionaries of Charity are feeding the poor; some yard work for an elderly neighbor could be another worthy option. Cultivating responsible attentiveness to one's own house chores, when reinforced as one of the ways family members show their care for one another, can be another way of observing Lent together in the home.
Friday is often set aside for the Stations of the Cross during Lent. This devotion can be a devotional focal point for the family's Lenten prayer together. Whereas it is always good to participate at whatever liturgies or devotions one's parish sponsors, it can also be fun for a family to choose a different place to attend Stations each week. Neighboring parishes typically feature this weekly service in Lent, as do most religious houses, many of which set out the welcome mat for visitors. The Stations are a devotion rather than a liturgy, and therefore anyone can preside. Stations booklets, which are not even necessary, are easily available. The family might want to pray the Stations of the Cross apart from a parish or other ecclesial community; this is quite laudable. A parent might lead the prayers; the youngsters can take active roles. Planning the time and place for this weekly devotion can make for an interesting family project.
Of course, attendance at daily Mass is the most excellent of Lenten activities. If daily Mass is not part of the family's regular routine, the initiative of one or two members to try to get to daily Mass in Lent can serve as motivation for others. In Rome, there are "Stational Masses" during Lent (and selected other days of the year, as well). The Holy Father always begins Lent by offering the Ash Wednesday
Mass at Santa Sabina, the Dominican Generalate, where the Dominican friars and the Benedictine monks have all processed from nearby Sant' Anselmo (the Benedictine Generalate) to greet him. Every successive day in Lent is assigned to a stational church. At least from time to time, the family might try attending Mass at a chapel or church other than their home parish, in a spirit of harmony with this Lenten tradition taking place in Rome. (More on this practice can be found on the official Vatican website, in the section dedicated to the Pontifical Academy "Cultorum Martyrum", under Roman Curia). Family members might agree to the viewing of a religious or family-oriented film once a week during Lent. A family study project, for example, the shared examination of a portion of sacred scripture during Lent, is recommended by some.
Sometimes it is helpful to rearrange the religious articles in the home. Typically, the Catholic home features a beloved picture or statue of the Madonna. It can sometimes increase devotion by putting that sacramental away during Lent and replacing it with a likeness of the Pieta, or Our Lady of Sorrows, the weeping Lady of La Salette, or the Virgin of Guadalupe who shows her concern especially for the poor. Finding the usual Marian likeness back in its place after Easter reminds family members of the sacred seriousness of the Lenten season and the subsequent Triduum, the highest event of the Church year.
There is fasting and then there is fasting. Parents contribute significantly to their children's faith development by adhering conscientiously to the Church's regulations for days of fast and abstinence in Lent. Then there can be other forms of fasting upon which family members agree: fasting from television or internet use during the one hour of the day when family members are most typically at home and can enjoy some quality time together; fasting from dessert on certain days; fasting from argument, competitiveness or harshness.
Most Catholics find themselves celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once during the season of Lent; many celebrate weekly. Often this is a personal journey. The family might find that going together to church with one another so that each can make their Confession on the same day can become a treasured Lenten family event.
These suggestions are not exhaustive, nor are there correct or incorrect ways to adapt them. Rather, these ideas will probably be most useful if they simply draw attention to the reality that families might draw great spiritual strength by accompanying one another through Lent instead of trying to observe the Church's great penitential season alone. The family, often called the domestic Church, is usually the first place the Catholic experiences Christian formation, shared prayer and community life. These roles are appropriate to the family. They strengthen the family. Might they be useful for your family this year?