In just a few days, the church will celebrate Ash Wednesday, beginning the season of Lent. We are also approaching one year since our world was turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. As you may recall, it was a few weeks into Lent last year when we made the difficult decision to cancel public masses.
While we are all looking forward to a return to “normal,” the truth is that none of us will ever completely return to normal. As Pope Francis has said about the pandemic, “We do not come out of a crisis the same as before: either we come out of it better, or we come out of it worse.” Perhaps then, during Lent this year, we can take some time to reflect on how the pandemic has affected us and commit to coming out of this better than we were before. As I reflect on the impact of this time for the church, a few things come to mind.
It is an understatement to say that this past year has been difficult and painful for many. Whether through the loss of a loved one to COVID, the loss of a job or a business, or the loss of regular contact with the people who are most important to us, we are all mourning losses from this year. We must acknowledge these difficulties, take them to God in prayer and ask Jesus to heal any wounds we have received during this time.
While this year has presented challenges, we have learned a lot as well. For one, we have witnessed a great increase in our ability to connect with people from a great distance. So many priests and parish staff have found ways to connect with their people by communicating virtually and livestreaming masses and other events. Who knew that so many pastors would embrace these new forms of technology?
I’ll admit, it’s not always easy and it doesn’t replace being together in person, but it makes such a difference to our people. It truly is a tool for evangelization that we can continue to use going forward. I frequently hear from people about how much they have appreciated our regular Sunday TV Mass. I encourage you to take time to thank God for what you have learned through this pandemic.
This year has also provided us a great opportunity to grow spiritually. You know, by living in the 21st century in the United States, we can be easily spoiled by how comfortable life is. While comfort can be good for us, it can also be a roadblock to growing in our spiritual life. When we are too comfortable, we may fall into the trap of thinking we don’t need God. We may also come to believe that living in relationship with God means things will always be easy. We need only look at the cross to be reminded that following God requires sacrifice and a willingness to accept suffering.
Some of us who came from the older generation of Catholics remember hearing the phrase “offer it up” when we were facing some kind of difficulty. This past year has given us countless opportunities to make daily sacrifices and “offer it up”: The sacrifice of pushing through fear, the sacrifice of wearing a mask to protect others, the sacrifice of missing birthdays, graduations and holidays with family and friends. Whatever the sacrifice, offering it up to God is a great gift of love. This pleases God and can help build our own spiritual life as well as the spiritual lives of our families and our parish communities.
So, as we begin this Lenten season, I hope that the experiences of this past year will help you enter this season more deeply. Embrace the traditional Lenten triad of prayer, fasting and almsgiving as a way to grow in holiness. If you are healthy and have not already done so, I encourage you to safely return to Mass. Virtual or livestreamed Masses simply cannot replace the real encounter with Christ in the Word, in the Eucharist, and in communion with one another. Jesus desires to meet you there and strengthen you for the mission of bringing Christ to others.
Let’s use this Lenten season to ensure we come out of the pandemic better than we’ve ever been, as individuals and as a church. May God bless each of you this Lent!
Follow Bishop Ricken on Twitter, @BpDavidRicken.