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Living and Eating Simply for Lent

By Edward Hoyt

The McMahon family is one of countless Catholic families in the United States growing together in their faith as they grow in solidarity with their brothers and sisters beyond U.S. borders. The McMahons are an Operation Rice Bowl family.

The McMahon family

At their home in Santa Clara, California, the McMahon family participates in Operation Rice Bowl—fasting and engaging in other activities that help them observe Lent in solidarity with their brothers and sisters overseas. Photo by Philip Laubner/CRS

Ann McMahon was first introduced to the program when she was in grade school 25 years ago. When she became a mother, she introduced her children—the oldest is 17—to Operation Rice Bowl. Every Lent, a simple bowl sits at the center of the family table during their meals, reminding them to live in solidarity with needy people around the world.

Operation Rice Bowl is the Catholic Relief Services Lenten program that began in 1975 in the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania, as an ecumenical response to the drought in Africa's Sahel. For more than 35 years, CRS Operation Rice Bowl has offered Catholics in the United States a way to connect with our global brothers and sisters in need through the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Each Lent, nearly 13,000 parishes, schools and other faith communities across the United States participate in the program to demonstrate solidarity with poor people around the world.

"Operation Rice Bowl is a great reminder for all of us to think about those who are less fortunate than us and how other people live, so that we're not living in our own little world—not aware of what's happening elsewhere," says Ann. "So Operation Rice Bowl is a way to do the simple meal and think about how to eat in ways other than the way we're used to here in the United States."

Lent is traditionally observed through sacrifice. Lent is observed through charity. And Lent is certainly observed through prayer, and our mindfulness of how our brothers and sisters overseas are struggling is reflected in our prayer life. Operation Rice Bowl allows all these parts of a family's Lenten faith observation—praying, learning, acting and giving—to dovetail profoundly.

When Catholics bring the simple bowl into their homes, they begin a process of spiritual growth for the family, reminding them together to live out their faith mindfully as members of the worldwide family.

  • They read daily reflections and weekly stories in the Operation Rice Bowl Lenten Calendar about people served through CRS programs. (Each year, the calendar focuses on five countries.)
  • They pray the Operation Rice Bowl Stations of the Cross to bring an international focus to this venerable Lenten observation.
  • They prepare simple, meatless meals using recipes from different countries each Friday during Lent.
  • They contribute money to the bowl and turn in their donations after Lent ends.

Ann's family uses Operation Rice Bowl to give up something, "whether it's an ice cream outing or out to dinner or if we have a meal that's a little less than what we're used to," she says. "Then we'll put that money into the Operation Rice Bowl."

The global connection begins with the family connection. "We want to encourage and inform and educate our children to learn about people around the world," says Ann. "I personally really like the calendar and the recipes…and hearing about the stories, because it reminds me that people just don't have access to…the variety of food that we have here. "Operation Rice Bowl, she adds, is "a way for me and our family to connect to other people around the world. Just living and eating simply is a great—a great reminder for us as a family."

In joining in Operation Rice Bowl through Lent year after year, family members grow in awareness of the global struggle against poverty. And, in doing so, they answer the Christian call to be a voice for our poor brothers and sisters.

"I think that, for us, all of the tenets of Lent play a part for our family," Ann says. "The idea of solidarity and connecting with people around the world is a reminder to us, and it's part of our faith in that we believe that we're all one human family and that we all have rights and dignity."

Edward Hoyt is a CRS writer, editor and web producer. He is based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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