Making Lent more meaningful

For Catholic families, Lent can be a time to step away from the normal routine to create new and sacred traditions that go beyond simply giving up a favorite food or putting money in the Rice Bowl. While those basic sacrifices still play an important role in Lenten traditions, today's families are working hard to incorporate more prayer, service and meaning into their communal walk through the spiritual desert.

Some families go without any television or "screen" time for all 40 days. Others commit to visiting the sick or lonely in lieu of typical recreational activities. Still others add the Rosary or other prayers to their nightly routines.

Whichever path a family chooses, the actions often blossom into treasured annual traditions and sometimes even into new routines that spill over into Ordinary Time and ordinary lives.

Starting traditions

"Part of what makes us Catholic is our attention to the things that help us not to be so forgetful about what it is that we're trying to do with our faith," said Catherine O'Connell-Cahill, managing editor of At Home With Our Faith, a monthly newsletter that helps families incorporate faith into their everyday lives. "By observing the seasons, by observing going to Mass on Sunday, by observing our prayer life, by making those things a part of our family situation, it helps to form us as Catholics. Those are the things that kids will remember.

"Sometimes you find yourself trying in Lent something you can incorporate into the rest of the year," she added.

Unlike Advent with the opening of calendar doors each morning and the lighting of candles each night, Lent does not come with daily ready-made, child-friendly routines. Parents instead have to develop their own traditions, involving children in the planning so that they can take some ownership of their efforts.

O'Connell-Cahill told OSV that families should start out with manageable goals. If you've never gone one day without TV, don't start by giving up television for all of Lent. Start instead with one weekend day and one weekday.

"It's a way of looking at what are some of the distractions that have crept up here and how can we refind each other and maybe a little quiet time and some time for our family to be together that's not always about consuming electronic things," she said. "You're not changing the world, but hopefully [Lent is] changing you."

O'Connell-Cahill's family has an annual tradition of visiting seven churches in their area on Holy Thursday, when many churches are open until midnight. She said that sometimes they find churches filled with people, others where choirs are singing and others quiet and empty except for the pastor.

"It's really a moving experience," she said. "I think Holy Week services are key to trying to prepare the kids for what's going to happen."

Ideas into action

You don't have to have a degree in religion to come up with your own Lenten traditions. Your sacrifices and service can be a natural outgrowth of your family's interests, desires and talents. Find something that everyone wants to try and start slowly.

Among other traditions, Michele Bernasconi of Selkirk, N.Y., makes a crown of thorns out of braided bread dough and toothpicks. She puts a purple candle in the center and places the crown on the dinner table. Each time she catches one of her three daughters "being Jesus" to someone else, a toothpick "thorn" is removed from the crown.

Pittsburgh-based author Mike Aquilina takes his children — ages second grade and older — to the Chrism Mass each year. "It's great for them to see all the priests together in force, and to hear the priesthood spoken of in the stunning terms of the day's liturgy," he said. "Afterward we go out to celebrate the great feast day when Our Lord established such awesome sacraments."

Aquilina said that the tradition has become so beloved that his adult child, who now works full time, put in for a vacation day so he could join the family as always this year.

Donna-Marie Cooper O'Boyle, author of "The Heart of Motherhood, Finding Holiness in the Catholic Home" (Crossroad, $14.95), brings her children to Stations of the Cross, noting that outdoor Stations are good for families with young children because there is less opportunity for children to disturb others and the images are usually large and eye-catching.

Cooper O'Boyle said that she also encourages her children to give away their time to the needy during Lent. This has grown into an apostolate she founded, Friends of Veronica, which is an attempt to reach out to the sick and lonely in nursing homes as Veronica reached out to Jesus.

"I feel it is important to teach our children when they are young to give to others, and I let them know that Our Lord puts people all around us that we should serve in one way or another," she said.

Family resources

Homefaith.com offers concrete ways to infuse family life with faith in every season.

Operation Rice Bowl: In Your Home offers daily e-mails, calendar for kids, and more.

Lisa Hendey's Catholic Mom website has a great list of links and activities.

Visit the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' site for additional resources.

Mary DeTurris Poust is a contributing editor to Our Sunday Visitor.