Our Church wisely gifts the faithful with a Liturgical calendar comprised of many seasons of grace in which to journey closer to heaven. Lent is a distinctive journey of spiritual growth.
Pope Benedict XVI has said, “It means accompanying Jesus as he travels to Jerusalem, the place where the mystery of his passion, death, and resurrection is to be fulfilled” (March 9, 2011). Bl. John Paul II encouraged us to use the season of Lent wisely. He said, “The time of Lent is a special time of purification and penance as to allow our Savior to make us His neighbor and save us by His love” (Lent 1982).
As wonderful as all that sounds, in the family, most days we hope to merely make it through the day in one piece, never mind trying to add extra concerns and responsibilities. What’s more, with so much to do on any given day, how can we dare retreat from the busyness of the world to carve out the necessary and meaningful family prayer time in our domestic church?
We know that Catholic parents are supposed to be the first and foremost educators of their children and are responsible for passing on the faith. How do they impress upon their children the need to transform a forty-day period of time into a holy time?
I recommend that parents take a few basic steps to help polish up the atmosphere in their domestic church this Lent. First of all, they can tell the children that they will concentrate on three categories together as a family throughout Lent: Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Just as the tulip and daffodil bulbs hidden in the ground all winter require soil, water, and finally sunshine to grow so that we can enjoy them later in the spring, so, too, fasting, almsgiving, and prayer are the necessary ingredients to grow our spiritual lives—to make them come alive.
Gather the family on Ash Wednesday (or before) to get your Lenten journey off on the right foot. You can do this when you have a captive audience right at the breakfast or dinner table. Explain the three things we try to do in Lent. First, we give up something. This is called fasting. Second, we give something to others. Which can be done in a few ways: helping others, giving possessions, or money. This is called almsgiving. Thirdly, we pray more. While, of course, we want to do these things on a regular basis, in Lent we do them more intensely.
Help each child formulate a plan for his or her Lenten journey. What can they give up? What can they do to help others? What does your family want to offer to God together this Lent? Take some time to brainstorm together and write up a plan. Hang it on the refrigerator or write it on a dry-erase board. Help each child write down their individual goals, which can be posted on their bedroom door or kept with them in their pocket or backpack.
You can make suggestions for almsgiving—tell them to do whatever they should today with love, trying to please Jesus in everything. Whether it’s eating all of their vegetables, being polite, sharing their toys, tidying their rooms, and treating everyone with respect, it will please Jesus when done with love. On another day for almsgiving, suggest they give away ten smiles—to smile sincerely at those they encounter, especially the ones they might not feel like smiling at. This is a good one for the parents too! Allow the children to draw a smiley face each time they give away a smile today.
For fasting, suggest that the children fast from complaining or grumbling. On another day, fast from technology as best as they can, or they can fast from saying anything unkind, especially if someone has been unkind to them.
Make Fridays a special reminder of Jesus’ sacrificial love for us. Do the Stations of the Cross together when you can. But, at the least, talk to the children about Christ’s suffering and dying on the Cross for us.
As a family, on Sundays, try fasting as much as possible from the popular culture. No television, magazines, Internet, radio, and shopping malls and enjoy a peaceful, prayerful, loving Sunday together.
Of course, everything you’ll do with the children in Lent (which ends up being the practice of virtues) should be encouraged all throughout the year. But, during Lent we want to focus more intensely on the pillars of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving each day.
For your family prayer times throughout Lent, choose a time that works best for your family. It might be at the breakfast table after Grace Before Meals, you’ll fit in a prayer theme for the day and remind the family about their individual goals of fasting and almsgiving to carry out during the day.
Gather for family prayer again at the dinner table and possibly once more before bed, as each one is tucked in, or together alongside a prayer table, or while sitting together in a family room. Do what works for your family, but be sure to make it happen. Your prayer times don’t have to be lengthy or elaborate to be meaningful. Especially with little ones, your prayers may be very brief, but can still pack a punch.
Whatever you can do together as a family giving glory to God during your Lenten journey will indeed bring you all closer together and closer to heaven!
Dear Lord, Jesus, please open our hearts to hear you calling to us to respond in love to the many people you will put in our midst during this season of Lent. Amen.