National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Empty Stomachs, Full Hearts

In a time of war, prayer and fasting gain popularity

BY Judy Roberts

October 06-12, 2002 Issue | Posted 10/6/02 at 1:00 PM


FRONT ROYAL, Va. — Judging by its schedule of prayer, Theresa and Mike Bergida's rural home in this community west of Washington, D.C., is something of a miniature monastery.

At least four times a day, the couple gathers with six of their seven children — one is away at college now — to pray. They also bolster their prayers twice a week with meatless meals and at other times such as Lent with increased sacrifices, some of which are chosen by the children.

The Bergidas are among a growing number of Catholic families who are praying and fasting together for the needs of the world — for peace and an end to abortion in particular. Their times of family prayer are in keeping with a recent message from Pope John Paul II, who said: “It is very important to pray every day, personally and as a family. May prayer, and prayer together, be the daily breath of families, parishes and the whole community.”

It wasn't always so for the Bergidas, whose five boys and two girls range in age from 4 to 19. “We started with one thing, heard about another and started doing it,” says Theresa, a home-schooling mother. “You just start small with something you feel drawn to, maybe say a decade of the rosary at a certain time of day or grace at the table.”

Regular fasting and prayer became part of the rhythm of Bergida family life after Theresa went to Medjugorje, BosniaHerzegovina, with two of the children nearly 13 years ago. “It was kind of a conversion experience for me,” she says. “I found as I grew deeper in faith and came back and shared with my husband and children, we began to do more of the traditional Catholic practices that were always there but that we had kind of gotten away from.”

The family began to pray the rosary more frequently and then added the Divine Mercy chaplet each afternoon. “For a while I tried to fast on bread and water every Wednesday and Friday,” Theresa recalls, “but I was always pregnant or nursing a baby, so it wasn't really good health-wise for me. Now we have worked out something better for us to do as a whole family, so we always fast from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays.”

International Intentions

During Lent, the family abstains from desserts. And at other special times, they may give up watching videos. The Bergidas also observe the annual International Week of Prayer and Fasting — scheduled this year for Oct. 6-14 — by abstaining from meat for the entire week and offering the week's intentions for the conversion of nations, an end to abortion and world peace when they pray the Divine Mercy chaplet and the rosary.

Maureen Flynn of Signs of the Times Apostolate, who started the International Week of Prayer and Fasting 10 years ago, says many families are being moved to fast and pray during what many consider a crucial period in history.

“We have the possibility of having a world war, which could be nuclear next time,” says Flynn. “We sense a tremendous inspiration and motivation to actually do something. I'm hearing of prayer vigils in parishes in Tennessee and Texas. People are being mobilized to do things in their own families.”

Flynn says one family she talked to plans to turn off the TV set during the International Week of Prayer and Fasting. Others will eat more simple meals, such as soup and bread, giving the money they save to a crisis-pregnancy center. In families where the children are older, some plan to fast on bread and water a few days a week.

“Some are doing just one meal a day and cutting back on the other two,” says Flynn. “Some love their coffee so they give up coffee and sweets. Other families are going to try to pray the rosary as a family right after supper.” Still others will try to attend Mass during the week, make an all-night prayer vigil, minimize complaining, do extra things for each other or try to focus more on prayer during the day. Whatever they do, Flynn says, “I'm telling people to start now — don't wait for the week.”

Flynn says she believes it is especially important to add fasting to prayer, citing the example of St. John Vianney, who would fast several days on end when he wanted to obtain a divine favor.

Father Stephen Valenta, a Franciscan priest from Staten Island, N.Y., says fasting with prayer is rooted in Scripture and disposes people to receive the graces God is willing to give. He points out that Jesus fasted before he began his public life. “We are even told by the Blessed Mother,” he adds, “that through fasting and prayers wars can be averted.”

Flexible Fasts

Families who want to fast and pray should adjust what they do to the age levels of their children, says Father Valenta. For example, he said, if a family decides to say a rosary, the younger children could be required to say just one decade, while the oldest would remain for the entire devotion. He adds that, when it comes to fasting, children can be invited to fast from arguing with one another or from not wanting to make their beds or do homework. Families also can fast as a group from television or try to incorporate more silence into their lives by talking less and listening more.

Theresa Bergida notes that, although even young children can make sacrifices to accompany their prayers, she would never put a restriction on a child that would harm him or be more appropriate for an adult.

Meatless meals work in her home, says Bergida, because “everybody knows we're not having meat, so they know something is different about today. We also talk about forgiving someone and offering it up. Even with babies, they are hearing that we move the heart of God to move someone's heart, change someone or stop abortion. These are things you're just practicing so your children see it from the start. You're talking about it at their level.”

Bergida said she often lets her children take turns leading a decade of the rosary while her husband leads the meditations on the mysteries. She also has asked her children to contribute to those reflections by relating them to the particular suffering of someone for whom they are praying. “With the little ones the rosary is a harder one to make them sit still for. I give them bigger beads or a holy card or little book to look at.”

During the upcoming International Week of Prayer and Fasting, Flynn's group is asking people to fast, attend daily Mass and holy hours of eucharistic adoration, say a daily rosary and pray the Divine Mercy chaplet as individuals, families and parishes.

“If enough people really begin to trust God and implore his mercy through prayer, God will answer our prayers,” says Flynn. “Some think this is a done deal that we are going to go to war. I've been telling them it's not true. Prayer and fasting stops wars.”

Judy Roberts writes from Millbury, Ohio.

From the Catechism

1434 The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms fasting, prayer and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself to God and to others. Alongside the radical purification brought about by baptism or martyrdom, they cite as means of obtaining forgiveness of sins effort at reconciliation with one's neighbor, tears of repentance, concern for the salvation of one's neighbor, the intercession of the saints and the practice of charity “which covers a multitude of sins.”