March 9, 2018

Chocolate cake offers a taste of Lenten debate

Image of a cake
By John Shaughnessy

Who would have thought that a piece of chocolate cake could cause so much division among Catholics?

It happens every Lent when members of the Catholic faith divide into two distinct camps based upon their approaches of “giving up” something during this penitential season.

In one camp, there are the Catholics who believe that if you give up something like chocolate or desserts during Lent, you should make that sacrifice every day from Ash Wednesday to Easter morning.

In the other camp are Catholics who know that Sundays are not considered as days of fast and abstinence during Lent, so it’s perfectly acceptable to enjoy what you have “given up” on those Sundays.

And advocates of these two camps have been known to have discussions that range from friendly to vehement in proclaiming which approach is right.

So which camp is right?

“The great news is that they’re both right,” says Father Patrick Beidelman, executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Spiritual life and Worship.

The element of individual conscience

In making that statement, Father Beidelman cites the teachings of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB):

“On the USCCB website, they say this: ‘Apart from the prescribed days of fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and the days of abstinence every Friday of Lent, Catholics have traditionally chosen additional penitential practices for the whole time of Lent. These practices are disciplinary in nature and often more effective if they are continuous, i.e., kept on Sundays as well. That being said, such practices are not regulated by the Church, but by individual conscience.’ ”

That element of “individual conscience” is key for how Catholics approach making sacrifices during Lent, Father Beidelman notes.

“So my response to somebody who is discerning whether or not to keep their penitential practice on Sunday would be to say, ‘If you took a break on Sunday, would it help you be more consistent and deeply committed to performing that practice of penance through the whole of Lent?’ And if they said, ‘Yeah, I think so,’ I’d say, ‘Then if that—within your conscience—allows you to be faithful to your promise to God, then please do it.”

‘Jesus didn’t get a break’

Thanks to his mother’s influence, Paul Susemichel of St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis is firmly committed to the camp that tries to keep faithful to their sacrifices from Ash Wednesday to Easter morning.

“I would expect if she was still here, she would probably say that Jesus didn’t get a break from suffering on the cross, so we shouldn’t take a break from our Lenten resolutions,” says Susemichel about his mother, Theresa. “Believing in the resurrection, I hope to meet up with her again, and I don’t want her to be disappointed in me.”

Now a father of two, Susemichel still recalls the Lent from his childhood when he gave up candy for the first time.

“I was a candy-holic,” he says with a laugh. “That first year was the longest Lent.”

He’s tried to instill the same approach in his two sons, Nick and A.J.

“I tell them if it’s going to be a sacrifice or hard for you, give it up. It doesn’t have to be candy or soda. If it means going out of your way to help somebody, those are still sacrifices.”

In conversations with advocates of the other camp, Susemichel acknowledges he has “thrown out what my mom has said. But I try not to get into an argument with them because I have a hard enough time keeping my life and my faith in line.”

Sundays don’t count?

Members of the other camp base their approach on the foundation that Sundays are not considered as days of fasting and abstinence during Lent.

That foundation stands on the answer that the U.S. bishops give to a question on their website that asks, “Why do we say that there are 40 days of Lent? When you count all the days from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, there are 46.”

The bishops note, “It might be more accurate to say that there is the ‘40-day fast within Lent.’ Historically, Lent has varied from a week to three weeks to the present configuration of 46 days. The 40-day fast, however, has been more stable. The Sundays of Lent are certainly part of the time of Lent, but they are not prescribed days of fast and abstinence.”

Father Beidelman explains that Sundays don’t “count” in Lent because they are “special days set aside as the ‘Day of the Lord,’ and which call special attention to celebrating the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection throughout the whole year.”

Mary McCoy of St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis remembers how her father, Don Bowling, used that foundation for “taking off Sundays” in terms of the sacrifices he made during Lent.

“I can still remember the seven of us kids and Mom and Dad going around the table and saying what we were going to give up for Lent,” says McCoy, now an assistant superintendent of schools for the archdiocese. “My dad figured there were 40 days of Lent, and that didn’t include Sundays. We were raised that way.”

She has since joined the other camp.

The best observances of Lent

Whichever camp you are a part of, Father Beidelman encourages all Catholics to remember certain points about sacrifice during Lent.

“When we talk about the value or the virtue of making sacrifices, we can’t really talk about it appropriately unless we talk about our understanding of penance,” he says. “The Lenten season is a penitential time. The primary function of any penitential act is to combat sin in our lives and its effects and consequences. And penance has, as part of its focus, a desire to pull us back from sin, to turn us back to God.”

Father Beidelman also reminds people to “not see Lent as a time of self-improvement.”

“The best observances of Lent help us plug into the things that enable us to be transformed by God’s gifts, to become the people he created us to be.

“I always tell people that our Lenten practices should not be something that make us look good in the mirror or to other people, but make us look good to God. So we should participate in Lent so as to please God and honor God, and to be drawn into communion with God so that we can become empowered by what God wants us to be—disciples of the Lord.”

Practicing corporal and spiritual works of mercy during Lent will help people become better followers of Christ, he says. So can “giving up” certain things.

“In a society where there is so much excess, particularly materially, I don’t think it’s bad to make a sacrifice that involves freely denying ourselves a luxury or a pleasure or even a comfort or a convenience—to recognize our need to be drawn into a deeper mindfulness about turning away from sin,” Father Beidelman says.

“So making a sacrifice as well as doing good enables us to be conditioned as disciples of the Lord—to grow more completely into who he calls us to be.” †

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