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I went to church today, Ash Wednesday, with my mother. We arrived on time and I said hello and shook hands with Mike, the usher usually stationed on the east side of the church. We took our place in the last pew of the front section of the church, prayed the Confitor, listened to the readings, the sermon on what Lent should be to Catholics, prayed the Creed and went on with the rest of the mass. I like this church, probably as old fashioned as is possible in a modern world. Some of the prayers are in Latin and there is one high mass per Sunday.

So much has changed in the mass and in me. There was a certain fear and reverence that I had as a kid for the church. Now, I have to really concentrate to keep from being distracted. Today, during the reading from Joel

Gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.

I found myself chuckling as I added “…release the Kraken” That would have never happened when I was younger. Thoughts like that would have brought down the wrath of God.

In my youth, the Lenten season was the most serious time in the liturgical year. It was a time of self-denial, of suffering in an attempt to understand just a bit the suffering of our Lord’s sacrifice for us on the cross. Lent or not, every Friday was “meatless” and we were encouraged to fast for the entire 40 days. That was nothing. There were other, more difficult sacrifices to be made.

First off, the television was off for the entire 40 days. Even if there were only three channels, my whole world revolved around television. I watched reruns of Superman when I came home from school as I did my homework. There was Captain Billy, dressed in full commodore’s regalia (one of the local weathermen.) He would screen old Popeye cartoons for us in front of the “Peanut Gallery”, kids of station personnel seated on bleachers in the television studio. There were stop motion animation “Puppetoons” and old NTA cartoons, which were, looking back, pretty racist. Captain Billy met his end live on the air one afternoon when the husband of a woman who worked with him came into the studio and shot him dead in front of the Peanut Gallery. He thought that Captain Billy had been having an affair with his wife. The joke was on him. As it turned out, I discovered years later, Captain Billy was gay.

On channel 7 was Uncle Howdy, also a weatherman, but he could actually draw and entertained his panel of kids with his drawings of Thermal, a character of his invention. There was also Uncle Roy, a derby wearing rotund fellow who was into slapstick, pratfalling and bumping into the cheap sets in between cartoons of Heckle and Jeckle and Tom and Jerry.

There was the Silver Dollar movie with Gordon Sanders and a studio full of women seated on folding chairs that had been corralled while shopping at Penny’s downtown. Mr. Sanders had invented a number of games you could play with silver dollars and if you get one to stand up on edge, spin on its axis for more than a minute or shuffle it into an opening just slightly larger than the coin, the lucky participant would win said silver dollar.

Since the TV was off limits, we had to talk to one another or, in lieu of TV our family would pray the rosary around my parent’s bed. (My dad never could seem to stay awake.) My father always took this opportunity to add to our chore list and get things ready for spring planting. My brother and I would clean the weeds from the ditch that ran from our property back to the irrigation canal a half mile to the east. There was always construction projects since my father was building and adding onto the house we were living in; a fence to be mended, trees that needed watering, adobes to be made.

There were no sweets, not that we had a lot of sweets in the house except for what my mother baked. My father had special dispensation because he always took a couple of store bought fudge cookies or pecan shortbread cookies in his lunch as he had done since he had worked in the coal mines in the late 40s. We substituted Capitotatha, a bread pudding made from toasted white and French bread, raisins, peanuts, cinnamon and cheese. Rather than Cokes, which were rare in our house anyway, we drank Agua Dulce, a sweet water made from juiced lemons, limes, oranges, strawberries (if available) and shredded lettuce. Really not bad. And no beer for my dad. Bad enough back then that you couldn’t buy alcohol on Sundays, now he had to go without for the full 40 days.

In Catholic school, we stood up in class one by one after mass on Ash Wednesday and announced what we would be giving up for Lent. (Candy mostly, although there was the occasional smart ass who would say “school”. Sister Mary Lily was not amused.) We were all given small cardboard banks shaped like oriental rice bowls. We were to fill these with any change we happened to come across during Lent and these would be given to Operation Rice Bowl, a Catholic charity dedicated to feeding the hungry abroad. It taught us almsgiving and introduced us to a world where poverty was the norm. I mean real poverty, not American poverty. Each day, the sisters would tell us about one family or child living in a third world country where our rice bowl money would be used to feed, clothe or help with medicine or other health issues. The stories also doubled as geography lessons as these places in the world were pointed out to us on a globe.

We participated in spring cleaning of the Catholic school, scrubbing floors, washing windows, scraping gum from underneath desks and cleaning the blackboards with a particularly potent and intoxicating aerosol spray. Erasers were pounded into submission, classrooms decorated with images of Christ crucified, the rosary prayed before daily mass, which I thought was quite unfair since I had to pray the rosary at home every night. There were songs to be learned for the Easter Sunday mass, letters to be written to poor children elsewhere in the world, spiritual bouquets (a promise to say so many prayers) and cards to be manufactured.

Despite all of the extra duties, there was a positive effect. As a family, we grew closer together. In school, we learned to respect those around us because we were all working toward a common goal. The ashes on our foreheads set us apart from our peers, but also gave us the opportunity to share our faith with kids our age and we learned the value of charitable giving. Even being without television had its merits. My dad and I would go to Lobo basketball games rather than watch them in a re-broadcast at home because of the no TV rule. There was nothing in the Roman Catholic Lenten rules about basketball. Those were some of the best times spent with my father.

Post Vatican II, the church evolved and changed. Giving things up for lent was replaced by doing something positive in the community. Catholic schools began to disappear and only a few survive in each community. Giving has become more convenient, more managed, by check and credit card. We are no longer encouraged to fast for the entire season of Lent and God forbid we should ask people to give up their televisions. If that ever happened, the Catholic church would be reduced to the Pope and a few old cardinals. Long gone are the strict rules about fasting. We’re down to two days, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, although meat is still off limits on Fridays during Lent.

As I get older, the world seems to be more emboldened. Catholics are much more critical of their church, making demands for change, I suppose with good reason. A lot has gone wrong with the men who run things. But I miss the positive things that were lost from the strict discipline of the Lenten season of my youth. We were stronger. We might have complied with the rules under pain of mortal sin, but there was something gained from the experience. I can’t seem to re-create it in my life, but I am better for the experience.

Copyright 2017 by Jose Antonio Ponce

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Jose Antonio Ponce
Author. Actor. Musician. Songwriter.

Jose is the author of three books, Lunch Hour, 53 and From father to son and has been a working actor and musician for the past 35 years.

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