Holy Week & Easter Liturgies
Boomers can have a good Lent even
when not needing to fast
A crown of thorns is seen on Ash Wednesday at St. Bonaventure Church in Paterson, N.J., March 5. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, during which Christians reflect on the suffering of Jesus, especially on Good Friday, observed April 18 this year.
WASHINGTON — The Catholic rules for fasting during Lent no longer apply when you turn 59. This applies not only to senior citizens, but a growing number of baby boomers as well. And there's still nearly a decade's worth of baby boomers closing in on age 59.
So how does one have a "good Lent" without fasting?
It helps to keep in mind that fasting is just one of what the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops calls the three "pillars of Lenten observance." The other two are prayer and almsgiving.
Lent started March 5 with Ash Wednesday. The USCCB ramped up its efforts to help Catholics of all ages observe the season under the theme "Give Up, Take Up, Lift Up."
"Giving up" for Lent has long been an option. Candy, cigars, cigarettes? How about bad language or habits? But other options include doing something pro-active, which is something anyone, boomer or otherwise, can do.
And parents of Catholic boomers have shown that old Catholics can learn new tricks.
Susan Purrenhage, 75, of Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan, a Detroit suburb, raised five daughters — one of whom has already reached boomerhood — with her husband, Ed. For the record, she still fasts on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, while Ed claims, "I'm of an age" where fasting is unnecessary. "It's between him and God," she avers.
"In the days I was raising the kids it was more about 'giving up' when they were little," Purrenhage said. "But as they grew up, I learned more. It was doing more than just giving up — doing something yourself."
That discovery led to, seemingly contradictorily, a cornucopia of Lenten-themed activities over the years.
"For myself now, I am more about doing something extra for Lent," Purrenhage told Catholic News Service. One favorite thing she likes to do is write letters. "There are so many people who are lonely, depressed, removed from their families," she said, adding that receiving the letters is "very, very helpful to their own journey."
In addition, "I try to get to church more often," said Purrenhage, a member of St. Philomena Parish in Detroit. "I keep hearing my mother-in-law's voice. I'd ask, 'Why do you go to Mass every day?' She'd say, 'You go when you can because there will come a time when you can't go anymore.'"
And not just for Mass. "None of us have ever been fond of going to Stations of the Cross, but we do that every once in a while, and we go to confession, because there are opportunities" with what she called "communal penance services" with individual confessions as large numbers of priests head to designated churches in their respective vicariates to hear confessions. "I've seen as few as 40 and as many as 200" at the services, Purrenhage told CNS.
Extra spiritual reading during Lent is bonus for Purrenhage. She's also taken in musical passion plays staged during Lent at nearby churches, and has seen a one-woman show on the life of St. Catherine of Siena performed by Dominican Sister Nancy Murray, the sister of well-regarded comic actor Bill Murray.
Then there's also that old standby: the Knights of Columbus-sponsored Friday fish fry to which the whole family, and extended family, is invited. "Whoever comes, comes," Purrenhage said.
And, in case anybody was wondering, the obligation to fast may be gone at age 59, but the obligation to abstain from eating meat on the Fridays of Lent remains.
Bob Piccone of Portland, Maine, still fasts. "I try not to use age as an excuse," he said.
Piccone, also 75 with boomer children, remembers Lenten practices in his younger days. "I would give up, like, a TV show that I was watching, or something like a certain pizza place that I would go to — not thinking very philosophically," he said. "It was always, 'I do know it's supposed to be (giving up) something I like. So what do I like?'"
Piccone remembered one of his young children asking him, "What are you giving up for Lent, Daddy?" His reply: "Watermelon," which isn't particularly plentiful in Maine in late winter.
Ultimately, he would choose something to give up. "Then I would try to get into it. I would try. I didn't always succeed. I was just one of those guys who was born with a guilty conscience. It's not a good thing. Life would have been a lot simpler for me if I hadn't had that feeling that somebody is always watching me."
But Piccone got to a point in his life when he decided Lent was about more than just giving up stuff.
"I thought about the significance of it. I put the significance of it versus what it would have been at a younger age. I sort of like the idea (of not doing) something that you know is annoying to other people, or something that you've never been comfortable with ... you then go that route."
But he can't forsake something someone else would have a harder time doing without. His wife, Nancy, loves going to the movies, and Piccone and she regularly see films together. "She wouldn't want me to give that up," he told CNS.
One aspect of Lenten resolutions that still bothers him: "It comes out like it's a selfish thing, because I gain from it. I don't know if it counts. I haven't had any theological conversations about it."
But one thing Piccone enjoys about Lent is that it "ties you to your church. Our church, in my view, is a great gift to me, so I can accept it with all its foibles and problems."
He added, "The Catholic Church to me, that's what makes it part of what I want to be part of. When Lent rolls around, I'm not interested in giving up something ... but I know that's what's expected of me. So if I'm going to be a Catholic, I'm going to try to be the best one I can."
Piccone hadn't settled on a particular Lenten practice with less than a week to go before Lent began. "I've been working on it," he said. One idea that appealed to him is giving up swearing. "I don't do it in (contract) negotiations, I don't do it in certain settings, and I don't do it in front of women," he told CNS. "Maybe I'm going to work on that."
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