So today is Ash Wednesday. It’s the beginning of Lent, though my kids just call it an awfully inconvenient time for an extra long Mass.

As we drove to church I asked if they’d given any thought to what they might give up for Lent this year. When I got the obligatory ‘soda’ and ‘sweets’ before I’d even finished asking the question, I asked why giving up soda and sweets would make a difference in the world.

And there was silence.

So we talked about the tradition and why, as Catholics, we practice self-examination, fasting and penance during this season. We talked about how removing the things that distract us from our relationship with God helps center us, and brings us back to what matters most.

We talked about how, instead of just giving something up, we might choose to do something unusually kind consistently through the next few weeks, and how making the lives of others better in small ways is in the spirit of what we practice during Lent.

That’s heavy conversation for a hungry pre-teen and a grumpy teen.

Then we crammed into a pew for a longer-than-usual Mass, and I had time to think about what I might do differently this Lenten season. Yes, I should give up soda. And chocolate. And coffee. But seriously, none of that helps humanity or helps me dig deeper into my faith; in fact, it might even make things significantly worse. Things just aren’t pretty here pre-coffee.

As I listened to the readings, I remembered that a few months back I learned that the word catholic—lower case c– is an adjective that means broad or wide-ranging in tastes, interests, or the like; having sympathies with all; broad-minded; liberal.

I let that sink in as I stood in the long, slow line to have ashes crossed on my forehead. I thought about how much nicer the world would be if everyone, regardless of religious conviction, acted just a bit more catholic and how much more I would contribute to the world if I could be little less a Catholic but act much more catholic.

You see, the giving up of chocolate or coffee is a guilt reflex to me, just like answering soda and sweets was to my kids. It’s an acceptable answer that fits into the Catholic box of deprivation and penance, but it really doesn’t serve the true spirit of Lent. It’s giving up something because that’s what I’m supposed to do, but it’s disingenuous and empty. Moreover, it doesn’t touch something deep inside or make me a better person.

Call me silly, but I don’t think Jesus gives a flip if I drink one cup of coffee a day or ten. But I do think He cares whether or not I make a difference in the life of someone else, even if it’s a small difference.

So this lifelong Catholic is going to try to be more catholic this Lenten season.

I’m going to take the time to seek out someone I don’t understand and purposefully practice compassion. I’m going to make it a point to swap empathy for judgment. I’m going to challenge my own preconceived notions and truly listen to another point of view.
That’s not to say that I’ll completely reject the Lenten practices I’ve known since I was little. We’ll be meatless on Fridays, go to Stations and save extra in the rice bowl. What can I say; that upper case C isn’t all bad.