Social media, buying coffees, fasting – give it up for the generation who've reinvented Lent

As teenagers, it was something we all did. We did it because our friends were doing it. We did it because our parents forced us. We did it unthinkingly.

But Irishness is no longer synonymous with Catholicism – the last Census figures showed that numbers fell by almost 6pc between 2011 and 2016 and that 12pc of the Catholic community were born outside the country – and today’s young believers are taking their faith seriously.

So today, Lent – a 40-day period of abstinence and reflection before Easter – is an exercise which is both considered and thoughtful, some distance from the feeble sop to penance exercised in anticipation of greater Easter Sunday munificence.

For a start, they aren’t foregoing sweets in the hope of pleasing their parents.

“I used to be very good at Lent during my devout years between about 20 and 25,” says 30-year-old Ameera Ahmed, a telecommunications engineer living in west Dublin.

“I used to fast until about 6pm, and I would say the rosary beforehand. Then I fell out of that,” she explains. “Last year I tried to fast but by lunchtime I was feeling dizzy and I couldn’t jeopardise my work, so I stopped.

“Some things are a given – like giving up chocolate. I gave up tea and I did really struggle with it. Every year I try to give up something new. I also volunteer to do something to give back to the community. And I do Mass every Friday during Lent.”

Ahmed’s background is Nigerian and religiously diverse.

“I grew up in an interesting family. My dad was Muslim and my mum Catholic. So we learned about both. I went to Mass but my dad tried to educate us about his faith. My sister did convert for a while to explore it.”

Ahmed says she is conscious of others who might be offended by her beliefs and so she is careful to be respectful when talking about it.

“Normally I would be reticent talking to people. I used to be very careful to keep the faith aspect out of it. I had to test the water a bit because you don’t want to offend people.

“I can comfortably say, ‘I went to Mass at the weekend’. But you don’t want to become ‘The Jesus One’,” she laughs.

Modern Lent-observers are nothing if not current and inventive. Originality appears to be part of the new credo. It’s also hard to avoid that what’s now packaged as new mindfulness sounds a lot like the old spirituality.

“Last year I gave up wearing my headphones,” says Alanna Bradley (20) from Meath, a student of history and politics.

“When I stopped that I noticed how much I was using them. Then I would get on the bus and sit in silence with my thoughts. This year I’m hoping to give up buying coffee on campus – I’ll still drink coffee, but I’ll probably bring it from home so it will be a conscious decision.”

Bradley says that while she grew up in a Catholic household, it was while in college that she began to explore her faith.

“In Ireland, a lot of people’s faith is just passed on from their parents, it’s inherited. There’s not as much faith formation and there can be a lack of understanding of what Lent is, aside from giving up chocolate. Last year I understood Lent more as a personal decision, rather than something my parents said to do.”

Bradley is probably correct that recent generations of young people lacked a certain spiritual investment in their approach to Lent.

Ours was a more pick ‘n’ mix Lenten tradition – one that you could ‘break’ on St Patrick’s Day, because, well, ice-cream.

But these young people are not interested in caveats.

“Last year I was on Erasmus at the Hebrew University in the Holy Land,” says, Lucy Gannon (22) from Roscommon and a fourth year student of history and economics at UCD.

“I did the traditional orthodox fast, cutting out all animal products for 40 days. Being there was a totally different experience – walking into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday was very special,” she says.

Gannon says she tries to change her methods from year to year.

“Usually you’ll give up something. But you’ll also give more time to prayer, give alms. This year for my prayer I’m going to do a 33-day consecration [personal prayer] to Our Lady. For charity, my penance is to not buy things I don’t need. I’m terrible for buying books and clothes so I’m going to try avoid that. I’m going to give it to charity instead.”

For this generation, reducing their online footprint plays a significant role in any sacrifice. Unsurprisingly.

“This Lent I’m planning to restrict myself on social media,” says Mati Remi, a 20-year-old student of Product Design at DIT.

“Traditionally I always gave up sweets and fizzy drinks. But you can take things up as well as giving things up. This year, I’m going to spend more time with my family, actually eating with them and talking to them as much as possible.”

Today, Lent can have a strong online dimension, reflecting our modern, tech-driven world. Ivan Mather (21) studies business and law in Dublin. He is undertaking a regime called Exodus90, “a 90-day programme which encompasses the Lenten period,” he says.

“It’s based on three pillars – prayer, asceticism and community.

“There’s no alcohol, no televised sports, television or movies. Internet only when necessary, for work or study. No snacks between meals, we only take cold showers and we do regular exercise,” he explains.

Mather, who is undertaking Exodus90 with a group of 15 friends, maintains that he finds is beneficial, despite the intensity of the programme. (The Exodus90 website says the programme was developed at a seminary in Maryland and piloted in 2013-2015 and that practitioners are 90pc Catholic, 3pc Protestant and 2pc Orthodox. The site says it is practised in “every state of the USA/Canada/Mexico, Brazil, England, France, Ireland, Slovakia.” There is a women’s programme called Fiat90.)

Mather was raised “nominally Catholic”. “Faith was important but it was never the centre of our family, really. Growing up in a secular environment it was convenient to me to ignore what the Church taught.”

A period as “an agnostic/atheist” followed before he came back to the faith through meeting young Catholics.

UCD Chaplain Fr Eamon Bourke believes that this generation is different. “They’re coming from backgrounds where there isn’t much faith, so they’re coming to it anew. They’re don’t have the baggage or the hang-ups that older generations had.”

Fr Bourke has also noticed an increase in the university’s community since arriving three years ago.

“Attendance at Mass can be up to 100, up from about 12 when I arrived.”

It may be because this generation’s approach to faith is also different to previous.

“They’re starting off with their relationship with God, and the rules and regulations of the Church after that. It’s the opposite to before. For me there’s a change of emphasis there that I find encouraging.”

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