A Family Fast

Because my Morning Offering draws me into prayer with the Pope's monthly intentions, I think about Pope Francis every day. And then, of course, I turn on my computer or my phone and see that I'm in good company: A LOT of people think about Pope Francis on a daily basis. Even though the Pope is often on my mind, once in a while his choice of name hits me like it's brand new: Francis. Francis of Assisi, "the man of poverty," as Pope Francis calls him. Days after he was elected, Pope Francis shared his hope for the Church: “How I would like a church that is poor and that is for the poor.” (See the whole article from the Catholic Telegraph here.)

In these last days of September, we continue to pray for Pope Francis' Evangelization Intention this month: Service to the Poor. Pope Francis knows serving the poor is a divine mandate: "Whatever you do for one of these least brothers of mine, you do for me" (Matthew 25:40). We must serve the poor as Jesus did, as he continues to call us to do as the Body of Christ on earth. But the Pope calls this month's prayer request an evangelization intention, because he knows serving the poor also attracts others to Jesus and his Church. We share the Good News of Jesus in our deeds--if not also in our words--when we care for the poor and disenfranchised.

As a mother and as the director of children's ministry at the Apostleship of Prayer, I love to consider how to help children encounter poverty in a prayerful way. Many, many children know poverty from the inside, of course. Even in this prosperous country of ours, too many children experience hunger, poor nutrition, homelessness, and other evils of poverty. I hope my ministry of prayer reaches these children, these younger brothers and sisters of ours. My heart longs for these children to know they are precious to the Lord, even more precious because they share his humble life.

For children who do not live in material poverty, Pope Francis' prayer intention this month may be difficult to understand in a concrete way. Some families serve the poor through food donations or volunteer help, but many children don't really understand what it's like to worry about mere survival day to day. Each month I write reflections for children on the Pope's prayer intentions, and each reflection is paired with an activity that helps children experience prayer vividly. This month, therefore, the activity I recommend to parents is a fast.

A fast?! Should children really be going without food? Certainly children need nutrition, and the Church does not require fasting of anyone younger than sixteen years old. On the other hand, here's what Canon Law says about fasting:

Canon 1252 All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are bound by the law of abstinence; all adults are bound by the law of fast up to the beginning of their sixtieth year. Nevertheless, pastors and parents are to see to it that minors who are not bound by the law of fast and abstinence are educated in an authentic sense of penance.
Here we find encouragement to help children understand penance and personal sacrifice. We parents can do this in a very cheerful, safe way, little by little, with activities such as the fast I recommend this month. Here's the activity:

Apostleship of Prayer Evangelization Activity for Children
©2014, Apostleship of Prayer

My own family completed this activity last week. It's true that I have often subjected my five children to various ministry experiments, but this time it was our ten-year-old daughter who asked for the fast. She loved the idea of pancakes with no syrup, so "drycakes," as we called them, went on the family menu Wednesday. The complete meal included fruit and a little sausage. No dessert.

We followed the steps of the activity, including the final step: sharing what it's like to fast in union with the poor. Many of us mentioned that pancakes for dinner are a real treat, even if they aren't smothered with syrup. Some of us, but not all, felt full after the meal, so we talked about that too. More than one child admitted that this tiny fast, incomplete as it was, affected their hearts in two ways:
  1. They felt great sorrow for children who would consider our fast a banquet. They saw how habitual hunger would complicate daily activities and make sustained concentration on school work impossible.
  2. They felt grateful for "these, thy gifts," as we say in our meal prayer. Our blessings are many. 
These responses are a gift: sorrow in the face of social sin; gratitude for God's providence for each person. God loves and blesses all people equally, the rich and the poor alike. It's true that our family can put a well-balanced meal on the table each night, but in no way does that imply God favors us more than others. The poor, in fact, are especially close to the Sacred Heart of our Lord. Our family fast helped us glimpse our unity in the Lord, regardless of material circumstances.

We will surely do this again as a family. Family prayer, and prayerful family activities, are good for all of our families. They draw us closer to each other and closer to the Lord. What's more, praying with Pope Francis' monthly intentions opens children to new ideas and experiences. Children understand that the Pope knows more people in more places around the world than we could ever know. He listens to their needs. In praying with the Pope, we expand our world view and grow in unity with all of God's people. And because the Pope's prayer requests change each month, children encounter a wide variety of circumstances in need of attention. Jesus may be calling our children to enter his vineyard, to become laborers in one of these many fields. Our dinner tables--with or without a syrup bottle--may be the very place our children encounter Jesus, where they hear him call and feel their hearts stir.

We know the Lord has a plan for each and every child in the world. Prayer can help our children learn about the wide world. Prayer can help them grow, confident in God's grace, to be the men and women they are called to be in that world.