Pandemic Third Lent Offers Chance for Spiritual Reset
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Lent, the spiritual season of prayer and sacrifice, has added appeal this year because once again — and now for the third time — it will be under the cloud of the coronavirus pandemic.
And while the third Lent in a pandemic may look a lot like a third fall of Jesus on the way to Calvary, people who spoke with Catholic News Service focused more on the season’s way to Easter and how This year’s Lent also coincides with optimism around declining COVID-19 cases in the United States.
“It’s a perfect storm: lower (coronavirus) numbers just as Lent approaches,” said Mary DeTurris Poust, former communications director for the Diocese of Albany, New York.
Poust, who teaches yoga, leads retreats and writes a blog called “Not Strictly Spiritual,” said at recent virtual retreats she led, it’s evident how much people want to reconnect in person.
And maybe this Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, March 2, is the time to do just that, she said of being with the parish community: gathering for Mass, services of prayer and also for the return of soup suppers and fish fries.
After the huge losses of the past two years, she said, this Lent might be a good time for a reset. “Lent is the perfect opportunity to recalculate the internal GPS” of where we are going, Poust said, speaking of individuals but also more broadly of what parishes can do to welcome people.
So many Catholics love the ritual of Lent and all its “bells and smells,” she said, which makes this season a great opportunity “to pull them off in the best way.”
Jen Sawyer, editor of Busted Halo, a Paulista website and satellite radio show, said that in times of uncertainty people are “relying on muscle memory” of the traditional religious practices they are used to. . But this year, she thinks the usual Lenten traditions might have a different feel.
“It seems to be Lent for which we are best prepared; we have all sacrificed so much,” she said. The experience of Lent in the desert has been had before and with so many exhausted over the past two years, she said this Lent offers new opportunities to find peace, community and faith.
Paulist Father Larry Rice, campus chaplain at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, agreed, saying the church is more than ready for Lent 2022 and he hopes it will help people “respond to all the trauma that we have been through”.
“We live with long-term, low-grade trauma,” he said, adding that for many the pain is just under the surface and he sees Lent as the antidote. “As Christians, we think our destination is not Good Friday. We go through it to get to Easter,” he said.
He also said this year had the added hope that “by the time we get to Easter, the pandemic we’re living through will be different.” And with the wisdom gained over the past two years, he also added: “There are no guarantees; there could be new (coronavirus) variants.”
The last two Lents have not had the same thread of hope.
Lent 2020 started off without a hitch with only a small number of COVID-19 cases in the country, but as early as the second week of Lent in early March, some dioceses urged parishes to reduce the handshake to the sign of peace and communion of the chalice. In the third week of Lent, many dioceses lifted Sunday Mass obligations and stopped public Masses and Lenten services such as Stations of the Cross, prayer services, and fish fries.
Last year, during Lent, more churches were open – although many limited the size of congregations and required parishioners to register for masses. Fish fries were back, as take-out events, and in many dioceses ashes were sprinkled on heads on Ash Wednesday.
This year, parishes are open – with different mask regulations and social distancing in place – and the beloved fish fries are back with in-person or take-out options.
“These past two years have not been easy for all of us, but God has been with us,” said Mercy Sister Carolyn McWatters, liturgist and chair of the Sisters of Mercy Prayer and Ritual Committee.
Sister McWatters, who lives at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Belmont, North Carolina, and is involved in ministry there with the retired sisters of the order, stressed the need to reflect on the pandemic experience this Lent. She said it’s important to recognize how we lived beyond what we could control, the inner resources we relied on, and where we saw goodness and grace at work.
“The cross is never a dead end. It points to a new life. Where are the signs of life for me, my community, the country, the world? she asked.
Spiritual growth often involves giving up control, she said, which was certainly an aspect of pandemic life, but the coronavirus also involved the difficulties of isolation that have been particularly experienced by retired sisters.
The convent, which is part of a national center for the Sisters of Mercy, was a frequent place for meetings and gatherings and many came for masses and Sunday dinners, all of which had been suspended for the past two years.
“Everyone is looking for the end,” she said.
The perspective of these retired Mercy sisters echoes what many are feeling, but Sister McWatters also cautions people who are focused on being victims right now and see the pandemic only as ” woe to me”.
Likewise, she said, Lent is not gloomy and catastrophic, but should be “a joyful embrace of what will help me grow deeper.”
Sawyer also pointed out that faith is meant to be joyful and said that Busted Halo with its “Fast Pray Give Lent Calendar” and InstaLent photo challenge aims to push that through and will continue this Lent in particular by urging people to try something. again – a new book or prayer – and to check in with others after so much pandemic isolation.
“We don’t often think of Lent as a vibrant time of community connection,” she said, adding that Catholics are “used to the desert experience” often associated with the season. But this Lent, that could change.