Lent no longer a time for self-denial, but for giving

April 19, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

It is a powerful story, the Easter mystery of death and Resurrection, and although Carol-Lynn Brown left her Catholicism behind in adolescence, the season still has a strong pull on her.

She feels it particularly during Lent, the long weeks of fasting and penance leading up to Easter Sunday, a time when Catholics have traditionally denied themselves things they are fond of to enhance their faith.

"The big thing was always giving up something for Lent," said the Rev. Oreste Pandola, 49, pastor of St. Leo's Church in Little Italy. "Growing up, I remember no eating between meals, giving up candy, and no TV on Friday."

Which seems kind of silly now to Ms. Brown, a 34-year-old premed student at Towson State University. Catholic or not, she doesn't see how not eating chocolate for 40 days is going to enrich her spiritual life.

So this year she decided instead to give blood.

And it worked.

"I felt great, like I was truly giving of myself. I even mentioned it to a few people in passing, that I was doing it for Lent," said Ms. Brown. "I haven't practiced Catholicism in about 20 years, but I always feel it this time of year, and I thought, 'What can I give that will mean something?' "

The meaning of the Lenten sacrifice, designed to echo Christ's sacrifice of his life to redeem sinners, began to change during the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s.

"Since then the emphasis has not been on giving up but on giving," said the Rev. Paul Thomas, archivist for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "You can give up things in almost a slavish manner and still not reach out to your neighbor who is in need. Or you're not there to give comfort to someone who is suffering from depression because you're so involved in your own pursuits.

"Giving up is a negative point of view, whereas giving is positive," said Father Thomas.

While many of Tim Bersin's fellow students at Loyola College in dulged themselves in the Florida sun during the Jesuit school's recent spring break, Mr. Bersin and about five dozen others drove to Kentucky and Mississippi to give themselves to the poor.

"It's not a season to give up something anymore, it's a season to go out of your way to do something," said Mr. Bersin, a 22-year-old graduate student.

"Lent began while we were in David, Ky.," he said, "and that wasn't lost on us. We did a lot of tutoring.

"And one day the entire group just cleaned up trash off the main street, we did something like 400 bags of trash in one day. It took my life beyond me, like I was being a person for others, not looking out for myself."

Yet the undertow of his childhood catechism continues to exert itself on Mr. Bersin.

This year he decided not to curse or drink beer during Lent.

Oscar Requer isn't even Catholic, but for the eighth year in a row he has given up alcohol and playing numbers for Lent.

A Baltimore homicide detective raised in the Pentecostal faith -- "they don't think you should drink, period," he said -- Detective Requer picked up on the Lenten sacrifice after hearing other police officers talk about it in the squad room.

For him it's a yearly experiment in willpower, to see if he is still in control of his life or if his beloved demons have taken over.

"It's trying; there's always temptation," he said. "It tries your faith, but I do it -- no alcohol or any form of gambling from Ash Wednesday to Easter Monday. It makes me know that the will of the individual is a strong thing."

Almost as strong as the deep, old-fashioned faith of Jessie Granese, who at 86 goes to Mass at St. Leo's every morning from her little rowhouse on Albemarle Street.

Having lived long enough to see changes in the Roman Catholic Church she would not have believed when she was a child who saved her pennies for the poor box, Mrs. Granese now finds herself on both sides of the Lenten tradition.

"I give up eating meat on Friday, but mostly I'm trying to be real nice to people," she said. "Sometimes it's hard when they don't want to be nice back to you. Now the church tells you to do whatever penance you want for Lent so when people don't want to be nice, then I fast from meat."

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