February 27, 2012

TORONTO – When Father Roger Brennan was living and working in a dirt-poor town 700 kms southwest of Manila in the Philippines, he didn't think he would have to answer questions about whether it was OK to eat chicken during Lent.

As far as he could see, his parishioners in Hinunangan were too poor to pass up any opportunity for a little extra protein, no matter what time of year it happens to be.

"Let's face it, they fasted 12 months of the year," said Brennan, a Scarboro Missions priest.

But the question did come up. Poor fishermen and farmers of the region knew the Church had rules about Lenten observance, and they wanted to be sure they weren't breaking the rules.

"Scrupulosity would not have been it," said Brennan. "They wanted to be good Catholics."

Brennan did his best to assure people God didn't want them to suffer. Each year, Brennan would preach through Lent with an eye to Holy Week. When it got down to the story of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, His betrayal, trial, humiliation and execution, the people of Hinunangan entered into it with gusto.

"There was a lot of pageantry around Holy Week and I came to enjoy that," said Brennan, who still occasionally travels back to the town where he was a missionary 20 years ago to research local history.

Lent is the five-week build-up to Holy Week, a way of living inside the story of Christ's death and resurrection. Brennan's parishioners may have been poor, but they weren't going to be denied that experience.

It's easy to make a case that overfed, middle-class Canadians, perpetually distracted by the tangle of electronics in their homes, need a little fasting, abstinence and silence if they're going to even hear the story of salvation over the din of hockey games, gun battles and Hell's Kitchen tirades pouring out of our TVs and computers.

But what about the poor? You can't strip the luxuries out of the lives of homeless and destitute people.

Down at The Good Shepherd on Queen Street East in downtown Toronto, Brother David Lynch can't recall ever getting a question from a shelter client about what to give up for Lent.

"The people we see are so desperate they take whatever they can, no matter what season it is," he said.

But that doesn't mean they don't want to be part of Lent.

"They probably would like to come to a prayer service," he said.


Working at St. Francis' Table in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood, Capuchin Franciscan Brother John Frampton finds it easy to see the bigger picture during Lent. It's not about giving up chocolates or scrubbing your vocabulary of naughty words for the St. Francis' Table crowd. What Frampton observes among the dollar-a-meal restaurant's patrons is the practice of charity.

"We have patrons come in and somebody doesn't have a dollar. Somebody else says, 'Well, I'll buy for you.' It's as much to do with what you've got. . . . You've got to be generous and you've got to be kind," said Frampton.


The instinct for kindness Frampton sees among patrons at St. Francis' Table illustrates Pope Benedict's Lenten message.

Charity and a concern for each other are the point of Lenten discipline, said the pope in his message released Feb. 7.

"God asks us to be 'guardians' of our brothers and sisters," he said.

Though Frampton is fond of saying that every day is Christmas at St. Francis' Table, he also sees Lent unfold in a special way among his patrons.

"As long as we have life we can be a source of hope for the next person," he said.

Frampton thinks fasting is a great spiritual practice when it's done with a purpose.

"When we fast, when we do that something extra, it's with a generous heart that empowers the next person to live more fully - and I think we live more fully, too."