It’s nutty and rich, sometimes taking the shape of a heart or a square and other times filling out a warm beverage. Chocolate could be considered the enemy of Lent. Who hasn’t given up the delicious confection during the penitential time leading up to Easter? The question is, could Catholics give up something more meaningful or engage in something more meaningful in the season?

When Lent rolls around, members of Resurrection Parish in Tualatin sacrifice their time, talents and treasure rather than their sugar intake. For the last couple of years, the parish has taken the title of a stewardship parish, following the stewardship guidelines of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops set in the 1990s.

“I am encouraging the people to do something and not simply forgo candy,” says Father Bill Moisant, pastor of Resurrection.

The priest says that a problem with fasting and abstinence is that it can make people more self-focused and self-absorbed. That’s not to say that Catholics shouldn’t be engaging in the regular fasts and abstinences associated with Lent. Rather, Father Moisant encourages his parishioners to go out and do something additional.

“Use your time, talent and treasure to help the people around you, to go help your neighbor, to reach out to the poor, not just in giving money but also getting involved with a food bank or other kind of community service,” he said. This could entail doing yardwork, washing windows, feeding the hungry, just generally helping those in need, even helping fellow parishioners in need.

“Make it a positive Lent,” he added.

This kind of perspective has had an impact on Father Moisant’s parish.

“It helps them be good disciples of Jesus Christ because in being disciples, we’re called to stewardship,” said the priest. “We’re called to use what God has given us, and so [being good stewards] brings us closer to the Lord and helps us be like Jesus.”

Reaching out to those in need can be a powerful spiritual growth experience, he said.

Apart from being a steward, Father Moisant likes to nudge Catholics to attend Mass more often during Lent, especially daily Mass. In fact, one of his own Lenten sacrifices is to offer a 6 a.m. daily Mass each Wednesday at his parish. For the self-proclaimed night owl, this exercise is a challenge. But he hopes that parishioners will take the opportunity to really journey with the church, experiencing the Scripture and Eucharist during the Lenten season.

Preparing the way

In the Latin and Eastern churches, the period leading up to a major church event, feast or liturgy is treated as time for preparation. Traditionally, these included some element of fasting or sacrifice, said Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, director of the Office of Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Portland.

“Easter, of course, is the feast of feasts and so the big period before that — Lent — is that time of preparation,” said Msgr. O’Connor.

The monsignor always has been fond of the idea of Catholics participating in Lenten sacrifices or penances. That intentionally takes time out of a person’s day and is good for the person’s spiritual life.

Of particular interest to him is the devotion of praying the Stations of the Cross, at home or at a parish. The devotion has been practiced since the Middle Ages.

“It’s obviously caught the mind of Christians and it endures,” said Msgr. O’Connor.

“When you say Lenten sacrifice and prayer, [the Stations of the Cross] is something going beyond giving up [chocolate].”

Transformation

Lenten sacrifices and penances are to be transformative, said Father Theodore Lange, pastor at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Veneta.

“They’re supposed to lead us closer to God and free our hearts up from attachments that prevent us from loving other people or loving God more freely,” said Father Lange.

There’s an element of purification in Lenten sacrifices.

And what if Catholics choose to give up chocolate?

“I think if that’s the only sacrifice somebody made, it would not be a very fruitful Lent,” said Father Lange. “Unless they were a chocoholic with a real addiction.”

The Veneta priest says that daily resolutions to engage in corporal and spiritual works of mercy bring to life the fruit of daily prayer.

“Lent could be a very joyful season because when we experience the purification of our heart from the attachments of the world, and we attach to the pleasures of God, he gives a delight and a joy that is a gift,” said Father Lange.

Lazarus and the rich man

In his Lenten message last year, Pope Francis shared the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, who laid at the door of the rich man, feeding on his crumbs. The rich man, overcome by greed and vanity, is blind to the needs of Lazarus. In the afterlife, Lazarus is comforted, while the rich man exists in agony.

“Dear friends, Lent is the favorable season for renewing our encounter with Christ, living in his word, in the sacraments and in our neighbor,” wrote Pope Francis. “The Lord, who overcame the deceptions of the Tempter during the 40 days in the desert, shows us the path we must take.

“May the Holy Spirit lead us on a true journey of conversion, so that we can rediscover the gift of God’s word, be purified of the sin that blinds us, and serve Christ present in our brothers and sisters in need.”

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