A “Used-to-be” Lent

This time of the year, these forty days of preparation for Holy Week and Easter, I often hear folks over fifty-five or so reminisce about how Lent“used-to-be.”“Remember the tuna casseroles and grilled cheese sandwiches?”

“I used to long for Sunday when I could have a piece of the candy I had given-up for Lent.”

“Did I ever love the Stations of the Cross on Friday.”

“Remember how tough it was not to eat between meals?”

“I can still recall dad reminding us to make a good confession before Easter.”

“Mom used to love her sodality meetings, and dad his night of cards and a couple beers at the Holy Name evenings at the parish, but those were all cancelled during Lent.”

“Remember the ‘rice bowl’ to help feed the starving sitting on the kitchen table where we’d put our pennies saved from buying treats.”

“And remember how we used to so enjoy Easter, after forty days of sacrifice and penance; it was like we were entering a new life and the sun of spring with Jesus risen.”

A lot of that these days, what I call “used-to-be Lent.”

Because, I wonder if we’ve lost it . . . has Lent become a thing of the past?

Now, don’t get me wrong!  I don’t want to go back to the “under-pain-of sin” mandatory fast and abstinence of pre-1967 Catholic life – – although I sure remember Pope Paul VI, as he lifted mandatory fast and abstinence (keeping it only on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent), expressing confidence that mature Catholics would now freely embrace penance and self-denial.

Nor do I suggest that there aren’t a good number of Catholics who still take Lent very seriously with their acts of sacrifice, more fervent prayer, and added deeds of service and charity.

Yet, I am still moved to wonder if, as a Church, we have lost the wonder of Lent, that these forty holy days have gone the way of holy days of obligation, fasting before communion, and no meat on Friday.

And all our kids hear about is how Lent “used-to-be.”

So, for instance, I’m at a great parish in the archdiocese and notice that they’re having a big dance on . . . the first Friday of Lent!

So, I’m at a huge banquet for over a thousand men, mostly Catholics, where the liquor flows and the steaks are medium-rare on . . . a Friday of Lent!

So, I’m at Mass in a parish where they sing the Gloria and have alleluias all over the place on . . . a Sunday of Lent!

I admire how our Jewish neighbors take their “high holy days” in the fall so seriously, especially the days of penance, fasting, and contrition . . .

Our Islamic neighbors fast all day and deepen their prayers for a month at Ramadan . . .

And here, my Catholic people write me for a “dispensation” on one of the six measly Fridays we’re asked to abstain from meat (big sacrifice these days!), if they even bother with the dispensation at all.

Am I being too gloomy here?  You know me well enough to realize I’m hardly puritanical or a crab.  All I’m asking is:  have we lost Lent?  Is it all now nostalgia, a museum piece, in the attics of our souls, as we tell our kids and grandkids how Lent “used-to-be”?

Lent didn’t just used to be . . . it’s needed now more than ever!

Let me ask you, is there anything different at all in your life, in the rhythm of your family and home, in your parish, this Lent?

Is it too late to get it back?

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22 Responses to “A “Used-to-be” Lent”

  1. Jane K. says:

    Cardinal Dolan,
    I too worry that perhaps we have lost the sense of obligation to really make Lent a special time- a time of sacrifice, prayer and good works. I help out in my child’s Catholic School at lunch time, and I am always surprised by how many children purchase ice cream, cookies, cakes, and snacks during Lent. In fact I even asked another helper if we should just stop selling them during Lent and explain to the children why! I feel like in the last decade we hear more about the need to “DO” in Lent. People say that it’s not about giving something up, maybe it’s about taking something on that is the bigger challenge, and perhaps it’s a challenge that can even be more sacrificial. If someone gives up sweets, and loses 10 pounds they might be happy. Still I feel that this philosophy lends itself to giving ourselves a free pass. We go on living our comfortable lives, with the intent of doing some extra things during Lent- and we aspire to- but in a way it’s easier to forget to do those extra things than it is to simply deny ourselves during Lent. To deprive ourselves of things we enjoy takes discipline but it’s tangible and I feel we can catch ourselves if we momentarily forget. (and reach for that cookie) Taking on challenges of praying more diligently and regularly, or going to daily Mass, or making time to help people are wonderful goals but it can in my mind be easier to justify not doing that act “today”….and rationalize “I will get to it tomorrow.” I believe there should be a balance. We do need to aspire to do more good things at this time, but good old fashioned fasting and abstinence offer us a daily reminder of sacrifice. As my sweet mom would say would say when she was alive- “don’t complain about going to daily mass or giving up sweets…because if you think that’s a sacrifice…try carrying and dying on the Cross.” Thank you for your reflection. May God continue to bless and inspire you every single day. Jane K.

  2. John Harris says:

    Your Eminence,

    I firmly believe the younger generation is thirsting for an authentic display of sacrifice for our LORD during lent. I had read where the Bishops of Scotland? are considering abstaining from meat all year long.

    I believe if we start preaching the reasons for the sacrifice during lent with Truth and Charity, more people will start to embrace it. Perhaps we will start seeing more crowds at the Stations of the Cross.

    You are in my prayers,

    John Harris

  3. Mary Watson says:

    attendance at daily Mass in my parrish has at least trpled. On Fridays there is a large attendance at the Stations of the Cross and I have also added daily spiritual reading to the day. However St. Joseph’s feast day was celebrated with the biggest Parish partyof the year.

  4. Teresa Beem says:

    Your Eminence,
    One word to brighten the prospects of Lent becoming Lent again: Converts. As a Protestant convert, I am so excited to do all the Catholic traditions! What a joy to join with the past. We converts are eager to know all about how it used to be! Thant you for telling us.

  5. Deborah says:

    Your Eminence,
    Your post really struck me and made me a little sad for the “watering down” of this beautiful season of Lent. In our parish here in Florida, though, we do have Friday Stations of the Cross and Fish Frys during Lent. We try to abstain from meat on Fridays and I have tried to step up my daily Mass attendance and private prayer and I’m planning to make a “good confession” before Easter, as your father suggested to you. I’ve given up treats and shopping (hardest thing ever for me!) You are so right about us needing Lent more than ever now during these troubling times. I enjoy your blog and tv appearances and your use of humor to make a point is very effective. I admire you for telling it like it is, even if people don’t want to hear it. Thank you so much for your sharing your insight and may God bless you.

  6. Charles Bermudez says:

    Your Eminence,

    You took the words right out of my mouth. But in calling attention to the
    ascetical practices of our non-Christian brethern, you forget to mention a Christian
    tradition where fasting is still very much regarded as a necessary discipline.
    The Eastern Orthodox observe four periods of fasting during the liturgical year:
    The Nativity Fast which starts in the middle of November, the Great Fast of Great
    Lent, the most austere of all, the Fast of Sts. Peter and Paul which every year varies
    in length and comes to an end on the feast of the two apostles on June 29th, and,
    finally, the Dormition or Assumption Fast in honor of that great privilege of Our
    Lady. This fast extends from August 1st to the 14th.
    And, yes indeed, Easter is much more joyful, much more meaningful, when
    one has thoroughly prepared oneself to celebrate what the Orthodox rightly call
    the “Feast of Feasts” and “Queen of Days”.
    Thank you for calling our attention to this most ancient and valued practice in
    the Church’s spiritual legacy, which, sadly, has almost completely disappeared
    from contemporary Roman Catholic life.

    Charles Bermudez

  7. David Pair says:

    So many things in the church seem to have become “museum pieces” over the last several decades. Remember Novenas? How about the Morning Offering? Stations of the Cross? When you ‘can’ find them now I have recently discovered that there are 15!? When was the Resurrection ‘demoted’ to being the 15th station? Have we abandoned Easter to the last station on Fridays in Lent? No wonder there is no fasting or abstinence.
    Perhaps the sheep need more direct input from our shepherds. If those pieces are to be retrieved from the museums, those with the keys are going to have to open up and let us have them [back].

  8. Your Eminence,

    I have long deeply respected and admired you and love your genuinely Fraternal Way of Being. It is an example for all!

    I may be completely wrong – but may I humbly suggest that Lent could never be something that we could lose as Christians. As you know every moment of our life demands a sort of conversion of soul – a choice of what we will let flourish in our midst – and of course the disciplinary structure of the Church is meant to channel and constrain all this effectively – the problem is that for most of us it does not do this anymore. Abstaining from whatever foods does not remind of Christ’s Passion on Friday – but forgiving my brother who I could be angry at instead definitely does. Ritually encasing our deepest desires is what our Church does best – but it has to be voluntary. I wouldn’t count Pope Paul VI out yet – I think many will still choose to embrace proscriptive means of curbing their own naturally concupiscent desire – but we need to be more open and more creative to the culture in our midst – engaging, baptising, and transforming. The wind from Rome right now smells like the odour of Sanctity to me Cardinal – but that’s just my 2c as a Neophyte.

    You are and have been for years –

    In my love and prayers,

    Craig Stewart

  9. Steven says:

    Oh, how Lent used to be!

    That’s a topic for discussion. How many Catholics actually care enough to do penance during Lent? After all, Our Lord spent forty days in fast and prayer. If it was good enough for Him, then certainly it must be good enough for all of us. In the eyes of the world, Lent means nothing. But it must mean a great deal for us. Fasting to mortify the flesh, prayer to beseech God’s Goodness, acts of charity so love will abound and be spread around. It’s not that hard, is it? Well actually, it is. Which is why the practices of Lent have so much power in them.

    This remark is for Cardinal Dolan. If you want to change Catholics to go back to the old ways then preach it from the roof tops. Command the people to do it. You’d be amazed at how many will if you do. The people will follow what you preach. You are the bishop. And where the bishop is, there is the church. You must set the example yourself. Tell the people what you do for Lent. Command the priests to do the same. You are the Shepherd of the Flock. We will follow you. Just do it! Be firm.

    God Bless You.

  10. Gerard says:

    Greetings in our Lord Jesus Christ! I felt it was me who was writing this as has been the echo of my heart and soul. I would like to sincerely make another inclusion or modification here………. it’s not just the young or our kids alone but even the elderly in the age of 40s, 50s, etc. for whom this sounds alien to the age old ways of fasting, penance and charity. Sadly Church assumed people to be matured, but contrary to this they have a different understanding of the word ‘freedom’. Church in its wisdom and knowledge gives a deeper understanding of the age old practices to make it more meaningful today. But these are misconstrued as final ultimate rules and regulations and misconceived very superficially by our people both young and the old (perhaps may not be all) especially when it comes to Church teachings and religious pratices. True we will have to learn a lot from the Jews and the Muslims. I remember the words of Christ Lk 12:54-57. Alleluia! Praise the Lord!

  11. Kevin says:

    Cardinal Dolan,

    It is not to late to get it back. I am 44 and know very little of what you speak. We have not lost it, but we are losing the people who did experience it. I think we need to go back to it. The deeper I dig into the faith, the richer my life becomes for me and my family. Thank you for writing on this, as it has inspired me to ask my 79 year old Mother about her childhood memories of Lent.

    Have a blessed day

    from ND

  12. kysm says:

    I love Lent and have found that as a mom of four and having been raised as a Catholic that Lent has more meaning for me now than ever before. I’m amazed and pleased at how our family and children have come to embrace the meaning of Lent. Our kids love stations, filling the “bean jar” with their sacrifices, and doing manual labor at the local seminary. We strive to be more quiet, less active socially, and pray more. I still fall short of my personal attempts in being more sacrificial, but I try each day. I lament that Lent wasn’t more meaningful to me as a child- now we look forward to it. Embracing Lent with joy seems to be a good theme for me and mine.

  13. Steve Bell says:

    Your Eminence,
    You are certainly no “crab”. Your joy and exuberance in Christ are inspirational. As a boy, I remember all the things you’ve mentioned. Seems that, much as we would wish it, we are in fact children, not mature adults, and spoiled sheep greatly in need of loving but strong Shepherds like you and Archbishop Chaput. Your frustration and disappointment are evident though muted. In my view, our Bishops need to say “no” more often . How you managed not to turn the steak laden tables over, I don’t know. Perhaps a little “Jesus and the money changers” action might have been appropriate. Take us and our pastors that permit such things to task. We can take it and will be better for it.
    God bless you and all our Bishops!

  14. Daniel Kintz says:

    Maybe if we had better leaders in the Church. For example, last Sunday, our “priest” “confessed” to us that he had Starbucks coffee before Mass. And on his way out of the Church, he had coffee in hand. Probably still warm, because likely he didn’t drink the coffee hours before, but minutes before Mass. And not to mention the story he told, during Mass, about fleeing west from a new Bishop in the Diocese he came from in the Midwest. We are tired of hypocritical priests, religious, and the like. Those laity “catholic in name only” are reflections of a tired and undisciplined Church leadership that needs to seek the face of Christ, for the love of God and man.

  15. Greg says:

    Is it too late to get Lent back? That depends largely on the mindset and spinal strength of the shepherds of the Church, your grace. Read this blog post by Fr. Dwight Longenecker:


    It pretty much says it all.

    While churches in other parts of the world are being bombed and burned down, while Christians in other parts of the world are being imprisoned for their faith, tortured, and slaughtered, we Catholics in the good ol U.S. of A. are burdened with the monumental task of making sure that two of the meals we eat on Ash Wednesday don’t quite weigh quite as much as the third meal, and with consuming grilled salmon and shrimp on Fridays in lieu of cheeseburgers and flank steak…

    I’m sorry, but if that isn’t a slap in the face of our Lord’s crucifixion, I don’t know what is.

    Of course, it’s not as if the laity cannot take steps on their own to actually practice a MEANINGFUL Lent. But there is a lot to be said for the influence of “popular” (in this case meaning “ecclesial”) culture. And who’s ultimately in charge of that…?

    May the grace and courage of our Lord be with you as you proceed…

  16. Mallory says:

    Wow! Something to think about! Thank you for reminding us. I do remember those days. Lent was different then, wasn’t it?

  17. Doug says:

    I was with a very liberal bunch of teachers a while ago and they were speaking of “meatless Mondays” so I decided to embrace the whole ‘no meat on Fridays’ thing. Some Catholics do that year-a-round. It required thinking ahead, but really wasn’t so bad. Now meatless Friday in Lent is easy. However I still need work on other penance and pride and other sins.

  18. Jim Calvin says:


    I’m sorry you’re seeing so much of that. I can say it isn’t the trend everywhere. Our parish in Fredericksburg VA consumes Lent hungrily, taking it as that one time a year where we can sharpen our individual and collectives desires toward holiness. We have our failures, but we really put as much of ourselves as we can into Lent. And our parish, and hopefully the Church, is strengthened as a result. Keep the light of hope, and I hope your message reaches the intended recipients and spurs good change.

  19. Rebecca says:

    I think that among the Catholic homeschooling families I know, Lent is not a thing of the past. It is stressed that we are not to brag or complain about the fasting, penance, and almsgiving. And there are a lot of us out here who have returned to fasting and abstinence on Fridays throughout the year. It is sad to see that among the majority of Catholics, the sense of a shared Catholic culture is slipping away. I am always encouraged when I meet other families that are trying to recapture it.

  20. Bill says:

    ” All I’m asking is: have we lost Lent? Is it all now nostalgia, a museum piece, in the attics of our souls, as we tell our kids and grandkids how Lent “used-to-be”?”

    Yes, Eminence, it is nostalgia and a museum piece in the attics of our souls…..those of us of the pre-Vatican II era. Most young people have no idea of no meat on Fridays and fasting as nostalgia reminds us.

    I was at a mission tonight conducted by a Scottish Redemptorist to our parish in eastern Canada, a Redemptorist conducted parish. The church was jammed wall to wall, and the line-ups for personal confession were phenomenal, like prior to Vatican II. I can honestly say the church was not filled with young people, but mid-thirties through to the ‘end’. But it was surely blocked, and this man drew people out and will continue to do so through Thursday of this week. Tonight reminded me of missions long ago in the fifties and sixties. Haven’t seen such a turnout in years.

    So, I’m inclined to think a wee-bit like Daniel Kintz; I truly believe we need good, solid priests. To see the Redemptorists of our parish wear their habits tonight alone was a lift for all. We have lost a lot, given up a lot, given in a lot. Many of our priests have also, and that has not helped the church. So I might not ramble, time to stop.

    But Lent is not what it used to be, mostly passes quickly and it’s all about Easter Sunday – and chocolate!

  21. Irene says:

    To the question, “Is there anything different in my life during Lent?”, the answer is a resounding “Yes”. You’ll be happy to know that Lent is still alive and well in my family and parish community where many still engage in the Lenten practices you discuss.

    My parish is participating for the first time this year in the CRS Rice Bowl Program; through it, my own and other families are undertaking the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and doing so in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable here at home and elsewhere around the world. I highly recommend the program to anyone looking to kick it up a notch his Lent.

  22. Alex Santaquilani says:

    Your Eminence,

    I read a lot of your columns. This one is your best. You spoke the truth with mercy concerning the trend of lukewarmness among American Catholics.

    Maybe some of the pre-Vatican II Lenten self-disciple was not as superficial, rote and herd-like as is thought by pampered American baby-boomers.

    I can testify that ever since I returned to a more traditional, higher intensity Lent, Jesus and Mary have led me to heights I never imagined were possible.

    Yes I sometimes moan and whine and miss the point of what The Lord wants. But it so much more engaging, life-embracing and rewarding.

    Every year now, yes, I get more excited about Lent. A little fearful? That too. But never bored! You want to wipe out lukewarmness? Try the old four-times-year Ember Days fast and abstinence in Wednesday, Friday AND Saturday.

    Easters and Sundays never felt so joyful. The old way is really a a whole new world!