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Lent Tests Students' Faith in Church, Themselves

Many young people opt to give something up, others to give. The season of repentance forces them to define their commitment.

March 08, 2003|Akilah Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Midterms are over and spring break is coming, but Joe Boskovich still has one test left. Can he travel to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, later this month, spend four days partying with hordes of shot-downing students and just say no?

He's not sure.

Boskovich, 22, a senior who is a member of the USC football team, said he debated with himself for weeks before deciding to give up hard alcohol for Lent, the 40-day Christian season of repentance.

"Two years ago, I gave up alcohol and I was miserable for 40 days," he said.

As he debated, he told himself: "I won't have as much fun, but I'll be a better person."

Eventually, he decided to go ahead. For the next few weeks, he'll be spending Tuesday nights -- the night he usually visits a campus watering hole -- helping at his church's homeless ministry, he said.

Then he realized that spring break is during Lent.

Pulling this off, he said, will be a tremendous test of his faith.

Search for Meaning

Many students will face similar tests over the next few weeks. Experiencing the freedom of living away from their parents for the first time, many students find that Lent is a time to make decisions about the importance of faith and the difficulty of applying it in their lives.

"The real project for the undergraduate students is making the faith that they grew up in, which is their parents' faith, their own," said Father Thomas Rausch, head of theology at Loyola Marymount University. "We have some who are totally oblivious to the fact that it's Lent and others going to campus Masses daily."

Loyola freshman Whitney McCormick, 18, said she will "do a nice deed a day -- even the smallest thing like holding the door open for somebody who has their hands full."

McCormick, a sociology major, also gave up soda, red meat and potato chips, a common practice since it's customary for Catholics to refrain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and each Friday of Lent.

"Giving up something that you really love helps you look beyond the materialistic things," she said. "It makes you evaluate what's important, to be grateful for what you have because sometimes we take advantage of what we have without realizing it."

The 40-day length of Lent is patterned after the biblical account of Jesus' withdrawal into the wilderness before his death and resurrection.

The idea behind the traditional practice of giving something up is that the sacrifice is an "external sign of internal conversion," Rausch said.

And for hard-partying, technology-savvy college students that means everything from Xboxes to Bacardi.

Julia Falkone, 20, a political science and international relations major, said she would probably do something cliched like say no to soda. A more serious sacrifice, she said, would be going without her daily dose of a Web site that features episode recaps and commentary on more than 40 popular television programs.

The sophomore from Reno says her favorite show is "The West Wing." The NBC Emmy-winning show is "my lame addiction," she said.

When "I have free time during the day, that's what I do," she said.

Since Lent began four days ago, Falkone said, she is still considering giving her favorite Web address a break.

"I think I could do it," she said. "There aren't any new episodes for a while."

Simply forgoing frivolous vices like chocolate or movies is an insincere gesture that goes against what Lent is about, Rausch said.

But when students make sincere sacrifices that show their devotion to God, that can help define the meaning of the season, he said.

Because things like cellular phones and the Internet are society's new addictions, giving them up makes sense in that context, he said.

Some see Lent as a second chance to make good on failed New Year's resolutions.

There's more reason to stick with it, said Larissa Delacruz, 21, a junior at Loyola. She says she gave up sex. "Jesus died for us," she said. "It is something that we are giving up for him."

Not everyone thinks that students making sacrifices for Lent is the best way to observe the season.

Exemplifying Faith

Sara Madge, 21, a USC English major from San Francisco, said that for years she gave up chocolate and carbonated beverages for Lent because she thought that was simply what Catholics did.

After she started college, she said, she realized her sacrifices had been in vain.

Denying herself soft drinks was not leading her to feed the hungry or clothe the naked. Instead, she was just giving something up because "my mom made me," she said.

So Madge decided to stop giving up things for Lent and started exemplifying her faith through everyday activities.

That's "not to say that I am totally virtuous, because I'm not," she said.

"But I need to focus on adding more positive things to my life than taking away."

Father William Messenger, director of USC's Catholic Center, agrees with that approach. He would prefer that students add charitable acts to their routine during Lent rather than omit things, he said, adding that doing something active for the season is a better way to deepen a student's relationship with God than simply giving something up.

He said, "My standard homily on Ash Wednesday includes, 'I do not give up Scotch, so bring all your half-empty bottles to me.' "

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