Spencer Lefebvre, a 10-year-old altar boy at St. Thomas Parish in Huntington, Mass., is eager to explain what he has in mind for Lent: “I'm going to say a rosary every Sunday night. And I'm going to give up all my desserts.”
His 8-year old sister Emily has similar plans, “I'm going to give up something that I really like, maybe desserts or candy, and pray a lot, and try to be kinder and more truthful.”
Their enthusiasm for the season of Lent is contagious. Laura Lefebvre, their mother, a Methodist who converted to the Catholic faith when she married her Catholic husband Gary 18 years ago, enjoys teaching her children not only the exterior practices, but also the deeper meaning of Lent.
“I want my children to know that Lent is a time to refocus on the whole message of what Christ's coming is all about. It's a time when we look in our hearts and prepare ourselves for the Easter season, so we can be closer to Jesus,” LeFebvre said.
Both her children expressed a fundamental understanding of why they pray and make sacrifices during Lent. Explained Spencer, “I think one reason is because Jesus didn't have anything when he was in the desert. I'm trying to be like Jesus. That's how I can show other people that I care.”
Young Spencer is right on the mark.
In fact, we observe the 40 days of Lent to imitate Jesus’ 40 days of prayer and fasting in the desert. Each year, on Ash Wednesday, the Pope reminds all of us, even children, of the importance of this season.
The Holy Father frequently quotes St. Luke when teaching about Lent, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
In his General Audience on Ash Wednesday in 1997 the Pope said, “The Holy Spirit, who led and sustained Christ in the ‘desert’, leads us into this season of Lent. … Attentive listening to Gods’ word, constant prayer, interior and exterior fasting, works of charity that concretely express our solidarity with our brothers and sisters: These matters cannot be avoided by those who, reborn to new life in baptism, no longer intend to live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
Both Lefebvre parents plan to increase family prayers during Lent, and even though the children are not bound to abstain from meat, because of their age, the parents are planning on meatless Fridays.
Spencer claimed, “It's not hard to go without meat. We go out to eat pizza sometimes, pizza without meat.”
Their pastor, Father Donald Noiseux, a diocesan priest for 18 years, is not surprised by the enthusiasm for Lenten practices he perceives in the children of his parish.
“In the years following the Vatican [Council], for a while there seemed to be an emphasis on teaching children to do something extra for Lent, which is good, but in doing that we eliminated the notion of renouncing something.
“Somehow, we think children won't understand the importance of making sacrifices. We think it's beyond them, too negative. But I'm of the opinion that children are very predisposed to understand supernatural realities. For example, they are inclined to accept, without question, the invisible order, the holy angels. They have a predisposition toward God by virtue of their baptism. They understand what it means to make sacrifices for others. And we should give them that opportunity.”
Father Noiseux remembers what it was like when he was young. “When we were children we took these things very seriously giving up chocolate or television, something pleasurable. And that was good for us. It's a preparation for adult spiritual life. How can we expect people in marriage to make renunciations for the sake of the spouse if they are not trained to renounce their self will for the sake of a higher good. That training starts in childhood.”
Catherine Peternel, a mother of three girls, from St. Cecilia's Church in Wolfeboro, Mass., couldn't agree more. She's seen how childhood Lenten practices affected her adult years.
As a youngster, Peternel gave up things like potato chips and offered her Lenten sacrifices for the good of others. The concept of sacrifice stuck with her. She recalls that later, as an adult, when she learned one of her aunts required bed rest for a troubled pregnancy and another aunt needed a job, her Lenten training kicked in. She started making little sacrifices, offering them to God for her aunts.
Peternal is still planning what she and her family will do for Lent this year. One thing is certain, though. Her plans will include taking all three of her girls, 5-year old Annie, 3-year old Rebecca and 7-month old Mary, to daily mass.
She believes her eldest daughter, Annie, is old enough to start learning about making sacrifices. “I think I'll start by telling her that it's doing things you don't necessarily want to do, to help someone else, or for God.”
She doesn't think it will be a difficult concept for Annie to understand. “It's amazing what they understand when you explain it to them. I am thoroughly amazed at what my daughter picks up at church.”
In fact, many children eagerly look forward to an opportunity to pray and make sacrifices for others.
Francisco and Jacinta Marto, two of the Fatima seers recently beatified by the Holy Father, passionately sought out, and even created, situations for making sacrifices and offering them up for sinners. Jacinta gave up her lunches and ate bitter olives. Francisco would retreat to church to pray the rosary. They offered their prayers and sacrifices up for the good of others, and seemed to understand the concept quite well.
“I think we have a whole reservoir that we can tap into with children, and we shouldn't hesitate in training them in the practices of Lent,” Father Noiseux concludes. “I find children are often very generous. It consoles them to think that God can use their sacrifices, no matter how small, God can use the act of their will and assist someone else by their sacrifice, by the intention behind it, the love behind it!”
Mary Ann Sullivan writes from New Durham, New Hampshire.