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Not sure how to “do Lent?” Here’s how some people observe the season


Justin Fatica | SrMarla Marie Lucas/Facebook | Archdiocese of Oklahoma City

John Burger - published on 03/06/20

Catholic leaders share their approach to the 40 days leading up to Easter.

Lent is now over a week old, and the time of prayer, fasting and almsgiving is well underway for millions of Christians around the world. This special season on the Church calendar is both a penitential practice and a preparation for a great celebration. It is a time of giving things up and doing more of things that ought to benefit the soul.

While the Church prescribes certain “rules” for Lent, such as abstaining from meat on Fridays and fasting on certain days, a person’s approach to Lent can be as unique as his personal spiritual life. And as private. We asked a number of Catholics if they would share some of that with our readers — being careful not to intrude on their privacy. In the hopes that something here will help you in your own Lenten journey, here is what they had to say: 

Pia de Solenni, former Chancellor of the Diocese of Orange, California, and Theological Advisor to the Bishop of Orange

Pia de Solenni
Courtesy of Pia de Solenni

I approach Lent with baby steps. I want to do my best to be able to improve various aspects of my life during the season. I choose mortifications that may not be huge, but that I will notice and that I’ll have no excuse for not following through. Generally speaking, I don’t think Lent is the time to take on huge life changing mortifications, e.g., stopping smoking. Of course, it depends on the individual and the circumstances. Honestly, fasting from judgment can end up being a lot more impactful than giving up coffee or something along those lines.

In addition to a mortification, I try to find one concrete thing I can do to improve my spiritual life. Again, I choose something that is reasonable so that there’s a greater likelihood that I will actually do it and not fall off. If I add a few more minutes of mental prayer or take up a modest devotional practice, it will probably be more feasible for me to follow through. If I decide, for example, to do three hours of adoration every day, let’s be honest: that’s probably not going to happen. And if it does, then I’m probably neglecting other responsibilities.

In terms of almsgiving, I try to look for personal situations where I can give and help out. At times, I think we are too reliant on charities to do this work when most of us know people who are in need. If we don’t, then maybe we need to expand our circles a bit.

This year, I’m also trying to incorporate more joy and gratitude into my prayer, my work, and my interactions with others.

We generally underestimate how much we impact others and ourselves by our attitudes. A spiritual director used to remind me that a smile can be an act of charity. He was right.

Above all, I encourage people to talk with a spiritual director about how they plan to observe Lent. Sometimes, the outside perspective is needed. I know of situations where a spiritual director has told someone in difficult circumstances, “Your life is your Lenten penance right now. Just live your life with Our Lord.”

At the end of the day, the whole point is to grow more in love with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is not about beating ourselves into some sort of Jansenist submission or whatever. Lent should help us to love more so that when the Triduum comes we enter more intensely into the experiences that Our Lady had, along with the other saints present with her.

Justin Fatica, Executive Director, Hard as Nails Ministries

Photo courtesy of Justin Fatica

I approach Lent with a simple prayer of thankfulness. “Thank you, Jesus, for dying for me.”

I pray that prayer every day, and Lent is a time to really reflect on the meaning of the cross and how much God loves His kids. Being a dad is one of the greatest honors of my life. I can’t imagine sending my son to die on a bloody cross for anyone.

Something that I am doing this Lent is to be more intentional in reaching out to others. In my prayer time, God put on my heart that there are people that I see in my day-to-day life who need encouragement. Each one of us has an opportunity to save someone’s life.

I was at the local 7-Eleven on Ash Wednesday. I looked at the cashier working there, and when she saw me with the ashes on my forehead she said, “I forgot it was Ash Wednesday!” I said, “I can bring you a priest if you want.” She laughed and asked, “Can you bring him for free?” I responded by saying, “You’re amazing! Thank you for being alive.” She thanked me and told me that was exactly what she needed that day.

I believe that encouraging the people that I see from day to day is just as important as when I am speaking in front of thousands of people. Let’s be the person to others this Lent that we wish someone would be to us.

Mother Olga of the Sacred Heart, Mother Servant of the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth

George Martell | Archdiocese of Boston | Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

I often thought of Lent as an extended spiritual journey and pilgrimage. Since the goal of every pilgrimage is to journey deeper in the road that leads us into deeper relationship with Christ, I often look for ways that will bring me to this place of deeper union with God. As a servant of the Lord and a daughter of the Church, I observe the Lenten practices recommended by the Church, but at the same time I look for other personal ways that I can stay closer to Jesus in the desert.

Desert is a place of solitude for extended times of prayer. It is a place of poverty to live by what God provides, and it is a place of solitude with God and others in their desert experience. Because my understanding of the Lenten desert has these three dimensions, first I try to have deeper examination about my life of prayer and my intimate solitude with the Lord through various times of prayers and devotions. Then for the experience of the poverty of the desert, I try to embrace my own poverty of doing God’s will each day without expectations.

Once I heard a story about St. Mother Teresa, that somebody shared with her that good people do good things and holy people do good things. Mother Teresa replied that these two things are not the same. She replied, “Good people do good things and holy people do God’s will.” Since I do long to pursue this path of holiness in spite of my unworthiness, I want to live every moment of my day focusing on God’s will in that present moment. Such attitude requires absolute poverty of self-expectations.

Last but not least, when I think of desert as a place of solidarity, I think of all the people who are living in the “desert” because of so many circumstances of their lives. In a special way, this Lenten season, I’ve been thinking and offering my prayers of solidarity with those Christians who are persecuted for their faith, for families who have so much brokenness and pain in their lives, whether because of broken relationships or chronic illnesses. In a special way, I offer my solidarity with those who are lost in the “desert” of addiction which has caused them to experience many losses of family relationships, jobs and hope.

I do take the Church’s teaching on prayer, fasting and almsgiving into a deeper and personal meaning to be with the Lord, to be with others, and God willing, through the graces of living a faithful Lent, I will come to experience Christ’s redeeming grace in and through the crosses of my own life as I keep my gaze on the light of Resurrection that comes from Him alone.

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley
Archdiocese of Oklahoma City

Lent is a call to return to the fundamentals of our faith, beginning with the renewal of an appreciation of our baptismal commitment. I prefer not to complicate Lent. It’s good to give up sweets and desserts and such things, but it is far more important to fast and abstain from sin. During Lent, it can be helpful to ask, “Where does sin have a grasp on me?” “What do I need to repent of?” “Where is the Lord calling me to conversion at this time?”

Answers to these questions can be a guide for our Lenten journey.

Sister Marla Marie, Superior of the Maronite Servants of Christ the Light

SrMarla Marie Lucas | Facebook | Fair Use

I truly look forward to Lent! In our Maronite traditions in the Eastern Catholic Church, we call this season the Great Fast and wish each other a “blessed fast.” If a Maronite chooses they can go beyond the minimum fast and enter into the traditional fast, which is each day of Great Lent: not eating from midnight to noon and abstaining from meat and animal by-products.

Since most of my adult life was in a Roman Catholic congregation, my return to the Maronite Church makes my past Lenten fasts pale in comparison.

However, Lent would be lost on us, and many a Lent was lost on me, by focusing on the austerities and making it all an endurance test as my offering to God. The desert fathers and mothers have inspired me to see that my fasting and prayer are necessary to empty myself from my attachments, freeing me to go deeper in my dependence on the Lord.

This prayer from our Syriac Maronite Liturgy sets the direction of the Great Fast:

Through fasting and prayer, souls are made pure, bodies are made chaste, spirits are raised, passions are restrained, mercy abounds, and the Holy Spirit dwells in the soul that was created to be the temple of God.

Fr. Leo E. Patalinghug, Founder and Director of Plating Grace

Father Leo Patalinghug | Facebook | Fair Use

As the priest who connects food and faith for the family, I always get questions about how to approach Lent and the discipline of fasting and abstinence. As a way to help people, without sounding like a perfect authority on the matter, here’s what I say: Lent is a time to renew my fervor in the basics of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. I don’t try to make my spiritual life for the year based only on these 40 days, but I use these 40 days to strengthen my resolve for what I want to do for the rest of the year. Therefore, I become a bit more intentional with these three ancient Lenten pillars.

For prayer, along with my other prayer devotions and obligatory prayers, I focus on the cross and pray some meditation of the Stations of the Cross every day. I don’t necessarily have the time to do all the walking with the cross and candles at different points at church, but I recall the Stations and try to recall the “feeling” or “emotions” that Jesus had going through each step of the way. For almsgiving, I try and focus on the little and big ways to give. I try and be more generous with the small donations, carrying coins with me when I know I’ll be walking through streets with many homeless or people begging along the way. But, I also use Lent to renew my monthly donations to various projects.

For fasting, here’s where I struggle the most because I’m always invited to eat different foods and taste whatever is being provided for me. But I make efforts to give up the extra pleasures, such as chocolate, bacon and fried foods. But, I also try not to buy anything new, unless necessary, and instead use all the food that’s been sitting in my pantry or refrigerator. In other words, I try and fight the culture of waste with intentional eating and cooking.

Ultimately,  I don’t like to dramatize, but deepen my Lenten practices. I want to simplify my life, not create more complexities. I also don’t try and judge what others want to do or aren’t doing during Lent, but help them carry their cross. I don’t try and do all my spiritual exercises in these 40 days, especially since I take full advantage of any of the feast days that may occur during this time, like St. Patrick’s or the Annunciation or St. Joseph’s. St. Teresa of Avila inspires my Lenten practices when she says, “When it’s time to fast, it’s time to fast. When it’s time to feast, it’s time to feast!” Please remember that Catholics have way more feast days than fast days.  But both days — feasting or fasting — can help connect us closer to the God who hears our prayers, receives our almsgiving and nourishes our souls when we fast.

Dawn Eden Goldstein, author of Sunday Will Never Be the Same

Ron Sartini | CC BY-SA 3.0

In addition to my personal Lenten penance, I am trying to better follow the Church’s advice to offer up daily inconveniences, slights, and so on.

Dr. Tom Catena, Physician at Mother of Mercy Hospital, Nuba Mountains, Sudan

Dr. Tom Catena
Photo Courtesy of Dr. Tom Catena

I find Lent to be a very humbling time. I see it more as a time to reflect how far off the mark I am in my spiritual walk. I often think of St. Francis, who saw the need for daily conversion.

I try (often unsuccessfully) to use this time to focus on the really difficult ones for me: namely, forgiveness and idle talk. I just try to stick with two themes.

Bishop James S. Wall of Gallup, New Mexico

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Gallup | Facebook | Fair Use

It is good to give things up for Lent, to deny ourselves, because we imitate Christ going into the desert.

Every year since I’ve been ordained, I always give up alcohol, and I do it with a specific intention. There’s the Pioneer Prayer that you can do for Lent, so what I do is I pray to the Sacred Heart of Jesus that my own fasting, abstaining from alcohol, will help undo some of the damage that alcohol does in the world — just because I see the damage it causes to so many people, especially here in my own diocese. Many of the Native American people struggle with alcohol.

Looking at my own prayer life, I get up every morning and make a holy hour. So during Lent, I try to find a time in the afternoon where I go and make another visit to the Blessed Sacrament. Even my holy hour in the morning, I try to make it more focused.

Concerning almsgiving, we’re in the poorest diocese of the United States, and this time of year we always have our development appeal. I try to recommit myself to that. I know it’s going to help and serve the poor. The Lord is always placing opportunities to serve the poor into our lives.

The other thing to do is try to look at a virtue to work on each year. So if I use those three things, what I try to do is say, “Okay, here’s a virtue that I’m struggling with.” Sometimes I’ll ask friends or family members — I’ll ask them to be honest, if there’s a virtue I need to work on. This year it’s patience. Over the last year or two I’ve noticed that I’m struggling with that virtue, which causes me to be short, which causes me to be uncharitable, especially with my tongue.

So I’m trying to assign those three things — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — so they help me grow in the virtue of patience, because if patience goes out the window, so does the most important virtue of all, which is charity.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker, Pastor, Blogger and author of Letters on Liturgy

Fr. Dwight Longenecker | Twitter | Fair Use

I enjoy a glass of wine or a nightcap of Bourbon, so alcohol is an easy choice when I’m thinking what to give up for Lent. For a holy book I have often read Dante’s Inferno, but this year I’m drawn to G.K. Chesterton’s Fr. Brown stories. They are entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time.

When it comes to prayer, I’m trying to simply slow down with my regular prayer routine of the Divine Office and Rosary every day, and I’m trying to carve out some time for Eucharistic Adoration.

Finally, my life is too sluggish. I’m trying to get some exercise.

Eva Muntean, Co-founder of Walk for Life West Coast

Sheila Fitzgerald | Shutterstock

How am I observing Lent? Imperfectly. But one thing I am doing and encourage others to do is get in touch with your local 40 Days for Life and join the Lenten vigil. What a way to show the Lord you care about His little ones!

It’s important to realize that Lent is about doing things: giving up or doing things that hurt so we can unite it with Christ. I hear so much about people praying more (which is a must), but Lent should be about combining it with doing more. It needs to hurt since He was hurt.

Mario J. Paredes, CEO of SOMOS Community Care, Inc.

Mario J. Paredes
Somos Community Care, Inc.

My Christian life is very simple and totally committed to my work, which is currently to direct a not-for-profit organization for over 2,500 primary physicians working with the most poor and vulnerable in the City of New York.

Every morning during the Lenten season, and throughout the year, I go to Mass and spend some time in adoration in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I read the Scriptures and read the Little Black Book published by the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan.

Beginning with Ash Wednesday, I practice fasting and abstinence. Over the past five years, I have invited a priest to distribute ashes to the members of my organization who are Catholic. There are over 150 employees.

The most important aspect of this season for me is to intensify my prayer life, receive the Sacrament on a daily basis and scrutinize the Scriptures by practicing the Lectio Divina.

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