For many Catholics, Lent has become a time for extra efforts, not self-denial. Pastors and scholars aren’t sure that’s a good thing.
Three weeks into Lent, the Rev. Bryan Parrish reports a time-honored menu of items that his parishoners at Holy Family Catholic Church are giving up – “food, candy, ice cream, beer, wine.”
But he’s hearing even more about less material resolutions made for the pre-Easter season of repentance and reflection – to check unkind words and judgmental actions, and pay more attention to needs of those around them.
Known as a time for fasting and self-denial, the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday has in recent decades become more an occasion for believers to devote extra effort to “what I’m doing, not what I’m giving up,” as Holy Family’s religious education director Tricia Fahey put it.
For her, that means being more positive about life – along with forgoing her usual glass of wine.
“No road rage during Lent,” she joked.
At St. Mary’s in Plymouth, parishoner Tim Dwyer calls Lent his “realignment” – the weeks when he tries to put his career as a financial adviser and “all of life’s stuff” into its proper place.
Ken Caldwell at St. Agatha’s in Milton looks at it pretty much the same way: Along with giving up his favorite desserts, the retired school administrator aims to give more to charity and attend as many daily Masses as possible.
“You take it a day at a time,” Caldwell said, as he left the church on a recent weekday.
Boston College theology professor Thomas Groome said devotions like Dwyer’s and Caldwell’s fall solidly within Lent’s age-old teachings, though the shift to “taking on things” has grown since the Second Vatican Council’s reforms in the 1960s.
But Groome thinks the 21st-century faithful shouldn’t neglect the discipline of giving up things, especially in a place as affluent as the United States.
“It’s good for us to be in solidarity with poor people who are constantly without,” he said.
“A little penance is good for us. I don’t want us to lose that.”
On that issue, the Rev. Parrish and other clergy see a generational difference. Lent’s self-denial is familiar to older members, reared in tougher times, yet baby boomers take material comfort and personal pleasures for granted.
“We don’t tune into sacrifice to the same degree,” said the Rev. Parrish, who’s 45. “It’s not a part of our experience.”
In an economy that relies on consumer spending, “Lent is very counter-cultural,” he said.
A small but growing number of mainline Protestants have adopted Lenten observances, though they tend to emphasize charitable donations and spiritual reflection.
Catholic youngsters get to participate, too – not just by giving up sweets or their favorite TV show, but in charity programs like Holy Family’s food drive for the pantry at St. Edith Stein Church in Brockton.
At St. Agatha’s, Patti Coughlin of Milton is trying to encourage her own children to be more aware of such needs – and as the mother of 6, she says Lent can pose a spiritual trial in her own kitchen.
“It’s a real sacrifice to give up those cupcakes I make for them,” she said.
Lane Lambert may be reached at email@example.com.
Lent fact box
What does Lent mean?
Spring, from the Anglo-Saxon word lengthen
How long does it last?
40 days from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday, not counting Sundays
Why 40 days?
40 is a symbolically important number in the Bible
Why give up something?
To practice a more spiritual life
What is fasting?
One full meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, as required for all Catholics aged 14 to 59
Why aren’t Catholics allowed to eat meat on Fridays?
The tradition seems to have begun in memory of Jesus' death – no shedding of blood from "fleshmeat" to honor the shedding of Jesus' blood and his sacrifice.
Why can’t Catholics eat meat on Friday?
To remind believers that Jesus died on Good Friday