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My 11 year old’s challenges with Lent… And what about Sunday?

March 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Lent, Seasonal Meditations

Dear Father John, My question is on behalf of my 11-year-old son, Matthew. Matthew decided to give up sweets for Lent. He did this completely on his own and just announced it on Ash Wednesday. (I am giving up my favorite indulgence, chocolate). At two weeks into Lent my poor little Matthew is in misery about wishing to have a dessert. I have coached him from different angles — “Look what a strong person you are becoming” or “Why don't you choose a different sacrifice? You know you can change your sacrifice…” or “When you really want that sweet and you feel angry or desperate, think of Christ's suffering for each one of us and relate his feelings to your own.” Do you have any advice for us? Matthew says that he's doomed either way: if he continues to sacrifice desserts he will be miserable and if he changes his sacrifice he will be disappointed and ashamed that he could not keep up his sacrifice.

By the way, another thing we are doing for Lent is to read daily Mass readings first thing every morning before doing anything else. Matthew is really enjoying this! We are also planning to visit a nursing home and share our musical talents there.

Also, I have heard many people talk about Sundays being a feast day and that you may celebrate by indulging in whatever your Lenten sacrifice is. What are your thoughts on that?

It gave me a thrill to read your question. You and Matthew and your family are carrying the torch of our faith high and making it shine bright. How pleased our Lord must be with your efforts to live this season with fervor and meaning! You are living proof of what Pope Benedict XVI said in his inaugural homily: “The Church is young!”

Sundays Are Different

OK, down to business. Sundays in Lent are still Sundays, and every Sunday is a Solemnity, the most illustrious liturgical feast the Church can have. Sundays are Victory Days, the day of Christ’s victory (Resurrection) over death, sin, and evil. As his brothers and sisters, we are called to share in the victory and to celebrate it. That’s why Sundays need to be different in our lives (and a lot of benefits come with it when we actually make them different). So, yes, during Lent, it is a long-standing and meaningful practice to exempt ourselves from our Lenten sacrifices on Sundays. But that doesn’t mean we should over-indulge! We should enjoy the simple pleasures of life (like sweets) as an act of homage to God, an act of faith in his goodness and promise of salvation. Give yourself a whiff of heaven! Exempting Sundays from our sacrifices (for the right reason) actually helps keep our motivations healthy and supernatural during the rest of the week.

Getting Practical

Your way of reminding Matthew of the reason behind his sacrifice is right on target. You and he (and all of us) must keep fresh the reason why we choose to give something up for Lent: because it will help remind us that earth is not heaven, and that we tend to be self-centered and self-indulgent (that’s why we whine when we don’t get our sweets). And it is precisely that tendency that hinders us from following Christ more closely and learning to love like him.

When a football player starts his pre-season practices, it’s really tough. He has to get up early, push his body hard, endure pain, sweat, and a rigorous schedule. Why would he do all of that? Because he wants to be the best football player he can be. And the fat and laziness that he has acquired during the off-season has to be purified for that to happen. It’s painful, but it has a purpose.

Our Lenten sacrifices are painful (that’s why they are called sacrifices), but they have a purpose: to get rid of the spiritual fat and laziness that inhibits us from loving as purely and energetically as Christ. St. Paul put it well: “I do all this for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share in its blessings. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25). And also: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” So, keep reminding Matthew of that!

Three other practical things may help him. If you and/or your husband will take on his sacrifice too, abstaining from dessert along with him, it will help him. It will also help him if he learns about the sacrifices of the saints. Do you ever read excerpts from the lives of the saints? If he likes the daily Mass readings, he may like these too. They remind us that we are part of a bigger story. And seeing how much our older brothers and sisters in the Church suffered out of love for Christ stirs and strengthens our hearts. Unfortunately, not all the versions of the lives of the saints are helpful in this regard. I recommend that you look at the “Emails from Uncle Eddy” at I wrote them for college students, but I think Matthew may like them. Finally, try to teach Matthew what it means to offer up his sufferings and sacrifices. You can read more about that at this post.

And tell him that I will pray for him tonight during my adoration, and that in order to support him in his efforts to follow Christ more closely, I am going to add his sacrifice to my sacrifices for the rest of Lent: no more sweet desserts for this priest (till Sunday, that is)!

Yours in Christ, Fr. John Bartunek, LC, ThD

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • Guest

    This is a wonderful witness for all of us – and from an 11 year old!! – I feel challenged that I have something to learn from Matthew. I am one old woman who is unable bring herself to give up something I cherishes. to support you, Matthew, I have taken up your challenge and the remaining part of my Lenten I shall give up talking too much. I can assure you, Matthew, that is more mortifying that giving up sweets. I have a tongue which has a life of its own. And, please Father, pray for me that I keep this promise to Christ. God bless you all

  • Cathy

    I could learn a lot from Matthew. This was a good reminder of why I have chosen to give up something for Lent. Matthew, I am praying for you, and know that I too have given up something equally as difficult. I only had one thing on my list (I have chosen to fast for all 40 days of lent), But Jesus added more to what I am to be doing. Know that Jesus is looking upon you, and you have a very special grace. Not many 11 year olds would choose to give up anything. God bless you, your family, and all!!!

  • This is great advice and I will have to share with my ten year old. I admit, we all started Lent with good intentions but all have failed. I ended up switching mine to special prayer rather than “giving up” something. I have so few “me” moments in a day because of my motherhood responsibilities that I felt depriving myself was making me worse (grumpy, miserable).

  • Joan

    As a parent, I suggest the following, which has helped with my younger children when they struggle – we pray together, for Jesus to sustain us in our specific challenges at that time. No one can go it alone! Seems to work for the kids – they often proceed unfettered after that. They learn to pray, to ask for prayers and to see God work in their lives. And it’s really easy!

  • Karen Kamphaus

    Children have an awfully lot that they can teach us. This is why The Lord wants us to be as little children. When my son John was 8 yrs.old, he wanted to give up TV for lent. We turned off the cable. It was hardest for me. 3 yrs. latter we still don’t watch TV. We watch a DVD now and then. “Leave it to Beaver” and good movies about the saints and such.
    This has made our life so much better. It is hard to believe how much time is wasted sitting in front of the TV, filling our hearts and minds with dirt. Now there is More time for prayer!!!

  • Matthew,
    You’re a special young man, and the spiritual strength you are displaying, AND GAINING, through the trial of this daily and painful sacrifice is preparing you to grow into a man of God. You’re a witness to me, and — if I had a son — I would want him to have your heart and your courage. Hang on, buddy… we can see the finish line from here! 1st Cor. 9:24,25

    your brother in Christ,

  • valerieramos

    This was one of the most practical, to the heart messages on making the penances of Lent real for young people that I have come across. So helpful! I’m sharing this one with my confirmation class, children and friends. Thank you, Father, for the generosity of your spirit. You are setting a wonderful example for all of your readers.

  • Anne

    Thank you for this post about the struggles of children during Lent. I also have an 11 year old son who has his own Lenten struggles and perhaps you can offer me some perspective on his issues. As a family, we watch a movie about the life of Christ once each week during Lent (we don’t watch the Passion with our five children). No matter what movie we watch, Jack (our 11 year old), ends up crying bitterly at the crucifixion. He usually cannot be consoled and cries himself to sleep.

    Yesterday, our family attended a Reconciliation Service. When it was time for individual confession, he stood in line and cried. He has been receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation since he was in the 2nd grade and has never had difficulty with it until the past year. He is a very good boy and I can’t imagine that he would be feeling any guilt over his sins that would be so bad as to keep him away from confession. So, after the rest of the family had received the sacrament, we left church and he never did make his confession and receive the grace of absolution. He would not tell anyone why he was so upset. I did offer to take him to confession again tonight and he agreed, so we’ll see how it goes.

    Did I do the right thing in letting him bypass confession and does anyone else have issues with an overly sensitive 11 year old?

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