Dear Sister Sunday

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child eating a hamburger

Dear Sister Sunday,

I have four kids, twelve and younger. We received guidelines for the Lenten fast in our church bulletin at the beginning of Lent and my older kids have informed me (several times) that they are exempt from fasting. My husband and I have been pretty lax about this in the past, but we want to try and really keep Lent this year as a family. Given the Church’s law, what should I tell my kids?


Hoping for Holiness


Dear Hoping,

Let’s begin with the bishops’ statement from our national conference on Lenten fasting:

Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for Catholics. In addition, Fridays during Lent are obligatory days of abstinence. For members of the Latin Catholic Church, the norms on fasting are obligatory from age 18 until age 59. When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal. Two smaller meals may also be taken, but not to equal a full meal. The norms concerning abstinence from meat are binding upon members of the Latin Catholic Church from age 14 onwards.

It might make Catholics in a country like Haiti,  laugh at the thought of three meals, one large and two small, as anyone’s idea of fasting.

So, we have two different components here: abstinence (which means not eating meat) and fasting (which means one full meal and two smaller meals on a fast day.) When we consider these components, keep in mind — and share with your older children — that the Catholic Church is just what the name says, universal. Both the developed and the developing world are part of the church. In the developing world, where children in great numbers die each day from hunger and malnutrition, insisting that a child miss a meal when one is available could be a form of abuse, as well as misplaced piety. The Church understands that, in many parts of the world, growing children need to eat whenever and wherever they can.

Notice that, the laws of fast and abstinence for adults are moderate, as well. There are only two obligatory days of fast and abstinence. It might make Catholics in a country like Haiti, where people are grateful for one meal a day, laugh at the thought of three meals, one large and two small, as anyone’s idea of fasting.

But you don’t live in Haiti. You live in the USA, where most of us eat so often and so much that we face, not famine, but an obesity epidemic. (Where else but here would Hoarders and My 600-Lb. Life be popular television shows?) So, unless you and your family experience regular food insecurity, or your children have conditions, such as diabetes or cystic fibrosis, that require certain numbers of calories at regular intervals — perhaps over and above what others in the family need — in order to stay healthy, my advice is that you reclaim your (God-given) authority and tell your older kids, “Nice try.”

When you baptized your children, the Church told you the truth: You and your husband are their first and best teachers. Notice that the bishops don’t hand out mandatory recipes and menus. It’s up to you to decide how the one full meal and two smaller meals look at your house. If you are dessert eaters or soda drinkers, taking that away will not harm anyone and it gives you a chance to rest your sugar deadened senses in order that Easter sweets once again delight.

If you are between-meal snackers, taking that away will not harm anyone (except, of course, infants, and, perhaps, toddlers, who must be fed when they are hungry) and will reawaken the whole family’s sense of taste and smell and gratitude when they sit down for a proper meal.

If you are fast-food eaters, cooking all your meals at home may seem like a sacrifice, but it will transform your home life in good and holy ways.

Same for going vegetarian or vegan on Fridays: it won’t hurt and it may help you and your family. And, I speak from experience when I say that a corn and potato chowder or spaghetti with tomato sauce are kid pleasers.

While you’re at it, ask grandparents or great-grandparents or some older people in your parish to tell your kids how it used to be on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, when fasting meant not eating. Their very survival to old age should be reassuring to all.

Keep in mind that fasting and abstinence are but one part of the Lenten tripod. Think of a three-legged stool. Cut off one of the legs and the stool can’t remain upright. So it is with the Lenten practices of fasting and abstinence, prayer and almsgiving. Pray daily with your family. If your children get an allowance or a certain amount of spending money, inform them that they need to put 10% (or whatever percent you and your husband decide) aside for charity. Talk about the work of your local Catholic Charities and other charitable institutions. Let the kids make choices about the recipients. Encourage them to read about or visit the soup kitchen, pregnancy center, or other charity they choose to help.

None of these practices are, or should be, confined to Lent, anymore than keeping a clean house is confined to spring-cleaning. But, like a thorough spring-cleaning, Lent gives us a time to go more deeply into fasting, prayer and almsgiving, to be renewed in and by these practices and to be awakened anew to the beauty of our homes and bodies.

Be strong, and have a blessed Lent,

Sister Sunday