A woman prepares a simple, meatless meal for Lent.A woman prepares a simple, meatless meal for Lent.ON ASH WEDNESDAY, I joined my fellow Catholics in giving public witness to my faith, becoming, literally, a marked man. Ashes on the forehead cause a change in outlook and disposition, in the way I walk out and face the world.

When they see the black smudge, some people stare and wonder, others show a spark of recognition or look as though they recall something from days long past. Most don’t notice or studiously ignore the man with the black mark.

We wear ashes not to show off and say how holy and superior we are as Catholics. We wear ashes to remind us and others: From dust we are made, and to dust we shall return. The ash should not proclaim to the world, “Better than you!” but rather, “Sinner like me!”

This is not an easy theme to teach my two boys in primary school, who are active and competitive. They want to be better than their peers, come out on top and stand out in a crowd.

A simple walk to the car turns quickly into a race for who’s first. They pick up a rock and want to see who can throw it the farthest. “Made you look,” “You can’t catch me,” “Mine is better,” fill their heads more than the mea culpa of the Mass.

That is why, as a father, I love Lent. The ashes, the fasting, the Friday abstinence from meat all send a visual, visceral message to my boys that these days are different, this time is set apart for special religious purposes.

When I got home from work on Ash Wednesday, my seven-year-old ran to see if I had a black cross on my forehead as he did, and was thrilled that we shared this mark.

Still competitive, he told me that his ashes were staying on better than his older brother’s, but it was a harmless form of one-upmanship.

My 11-year-old is at the stage where he’s not quite sure if wearing ashes in public is cool, but when I asked to see his forehead, he couldn’t hide a child’s smile that said he was still thrilled to be part of this Catholic tradition.

My sons are not yet required to follow the fast and abstinence rules, but I tell them that they are not too young to make little sacrifices each Friday, giving up a sweet or cutting back on time spent with their digital gadgets.

This request becomes a little less burdensome when they see their mother giving up chocolate for 40 days and their dad foregoing his favourite rice pudding dessert.

We also add a bedtime rosary in which our boys take the leading roles. We sacrifice together as a family, and each member has something to contribute.

As a father who wonders at times whether his sons are picking up the religious message and who hopes that they will remain close to the Church even as they grow away from their parents, the traditional practices of Catholicism provide a great amount of solace.

To watch my boys light a candle at the image of Mary, genuflect before the tabernacle, make the sign of the cross when passing a church and ask the meaning of each Station of the Cross gives me a sense that their faith goes below the surface.

If repeated enough times, these outward acts are bound to inscribe that deeper meaning on their hearts and minds, and bring my boys closer to God.

By Brian Caulfield

Caulfield is the father of two boys and serves as editor of FathersforGood.org, an online initiative for men and their families by the Knights of Columbus.

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