On average, I receive at least eight notifications per week about a child exposed to the COVID-19 virus in one of my two children’s classes at school. These persistent, pinging reminders of ever-present danger are now common to family life during a pandemic, as is stopping school, pausing work, restarting it all, living with sickness, and knowing death.
And yet—we continue. We continue school. We continue work. We continue life.
Every decision has a weight to it like never before. As parents, all decisions matter, yet these past two years have asked parents and children to do more—and more on top of that. My husband and I are tired. Our children are tired. We ask our 6 and 7-year-old to understand the sacrifices they’ve made—birthday parties, vacations, graduations they’ve missed—all as we try to process what we’ve missed, too.
In Pope Francis’s 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti – composed when “the COVID-19 pandemic unexpectedly erupted” – the Pope suggests that it is time for the world to band together to begin acknowledging the human dignity of each person, “beginning with the least.” Children, especially during the pandemic, are among the least. They do not have their own voices in the media, nor their own political spokespeople. It is up to us as parents to be their voices, to notice how children are faring during a worldwide crisis.
Yet, as parents, we are frayed.
When my son returned to school this past year, he started sleepwalking. When my daughter returned, she started bedwetting. Socializing with other children after being home for so long was hard. Once our children returned to in-person schooling after being remote for a year, they seemed excited. Beneath the surface, though, they were anxious and it showed. I felt like a failure! Had I not prepared them well enough? I felt selfishly annoyed, too. We were all starting a new school year, and now here we were with a new set of problems. My children were no doubt sensitive to my emotions. Pope Francis reminds us in Fratelli Tutti: “The joys and sorrows of each of its members are felt by all. That is what it means to be a family!” At this juncture, we were all tired, feeling that emotion together, too.
It was in this period of the pandemic that I realized the lives of our family had become so disordered that we had lost sight of some of the Church’s most comforting teachings. I no longer wanted to be at the whim of a virus setting my calendar, and it felt more and more as if this had increasingly become the case. With this in mind, my family decided to lean more heavily on the Liturgical calendar to order our lives, and we began to set aside time for prayer together.
These may both seem like large changes, but neither were for us. For instance, when my 6-year-old daughter recently had a meltdown in the supermarket about which flavor of Goldfish crackers she wanted for the week, I got frustrated that: my daughter was embarrassing us in public; that she had the audacity to want to choose a flavor of goldfish (are they not all the same?); and finally that she lacked awareness that other children couldn’t choose whatever snacks they wanted on grocery store trips. She wailed loudly in the middle of an aisle.
In our family’s renewed effort to center prayer in our lives, though, I paused and hugged my daughter. We said a “Glory Be” together and prayed for peace. My daughter’s entire body relaxed after this time in prayer. I asked which goldfish she wanted next; she apologized, and she chose. Then, we were able to proceed about our day, calmer. We even discussed why her inability to choose one snack caused such an emotional outburst and why selfishness can direct us away from living in the fullness of God’s love that is, by its very nature, selfless. Through prayer moments as simple as this, our children can see and feel that God helps them, and their parents, feel healed and connected.
While we do not ask our children to give up anything during Lent, we added prayer after dinner as part of our daily Advent rituals, and we plan to add this same practice during Lent. At the beginning of the season, we wrote down intentions that mattered to our family life. During Advent, some of these intentions included praying for a sick cousin and using kinder words and tones when speaking to one another. We kept the intentions on a chalkboard in the kitchen, and any family member could add a new intention as they thought of one. After dinner, we would read or recite a short prayer, and then add one or more of the shared intentions to the prayer. The addition of this small ritualistic daily prayer, again only of a few minutes, helped us all remember that God is in control, not the pandemic. It transformed our Advent season, and began to transform our outlook.
Indeed, living out the Catholic faith is a constant reminder that the result of sacrifice and suffering comes joy: This is Jesus’s story. The Liturgical calendar reminds us of this. Offering additional prayer time as a family during the Lenten season to prepare for Easter can help us remember that the sacrifices we’re making during the pandemic are for the common good. After we say a prayer together, I always ask the children if they have anything they want to include, with the hope that they begin to feel as if they are not only a part of our family prayer life, but also can work towards healing and strength in their communities beyond our family, too. As my daughter once expressed to me, sometimes it’s hard “to feel God,” and “prayer can help.”
For my family, ritual prayers that we schedule together have led to more sporadic prayer moments like the one in the grocery store I mentioned above. Plus, my son has stopped sleepwalking, for the time being, and my daughter has stopped bedwetting entirely. They, too, are both calmer in ways that are almost ineffable. They pray on their own more, bringing it up without prompting. They’re asking more questions about the Church, with interest, and it feels as if God has become a conversational partner in our daily lives more than a static background figure that we turn to only in times of need.
With that being said, please know that our lives are not perfect: they are still messy. We are all still tired. There are still breakdowns at the grocery store, and elsewhere, including at Mass. However, by focusing our family life more toward Liturgical renewal and prayer, we’ve begun to remember more frequently that we are not alone, that prayer and the Liturgical calendar connect us to the Church, each other, and to God. In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis suggests that the pandemic, with all of its suffering, should be seen as a time to strengthen the world’s faith and change our lives. “If only this immense sorrow may not prove useless,” he writes, “but enable us to take a step forward towards a new style of life. If only we might rediscover once for all that we need one another, and that in this way our human family can experience a rebirth, with all its faces, all its hands and all its voices, beyond the walls that we have erected.”
Because of the pandemic, our family is being reborn. We are letting down the walls of fear, together. This transformation is what Advent and Lent provide space for – to reflect and consider even how suffering can connect us, and as Pope Francis states, help us better “appreciate and love each person,” both near and far. The pandemic has brought suffering to our door; Lent offers us a period to understand that suffering and transform it as we can for good, both for ourselves and for our future generations.