I recently drove by a sign in front of a local church that read: “Lent is spring cleaning for Christians.”
I was enthralled with the message. That’s how I’ve viewed Lent for years – as a time to “clean up,” to put aside baggage, burdens and distractions and focus more on Jesus.
This Lent, the idea of cleanliness has taken on a poignancy we couldn’t imagine just a few months ago. Churches, schools, sports leagues, theaters, and most everything else have come to a halt as we work together to contain COVID-19, or the coronavirus, as best we can. It is particularly heartbreaking to stop public Masses in this holy season. Many of our daily communicants find separation from the Eucharist particularly difficult. I hope and pray that we will again be able to worship together soon.
The health crisis is very much on our minds at Catholic Charities. We are trying our best to protect the health of our staff, volunteers, and clients, adhere to directives from local governments, and still meet the needs of the poor and vulnerable.
We’ve encouraged all staff and clients to follow the important rule of washing hands for 20 seconds. (A nice prayerful Our Father is just about that length of time.) We are mindful of “social distancing” and trying to keep six feet of space around us. We avoid handshakes and hugs as much as possible, often using a wave, fist bump or some other sign to greet each other in friendship while staying mindful of good hygiene. We try not to touch surfaces and to keep them as clean as possible. We just want to do everything we can to protect everyone. I suspect many of these renewed efforts will continue long after the coronavirus is stabilized, as they are simply good health practices and better protection for those with weakened immune systems.
While we’re all doing our best, I have some very real fears about how we will do our work at Catholic Charities should the virus spread. I especially worry about our shelters. We have about 1,700 beds total at multiple shelters. I spent a night in one of our shelters, sleeping in a room with 75 men. I can see how the virus could spread should it find its way into a shelter.
If the virus becomes too widespread, it could result in a number of difficulties and concerns. I think many of the homeless would just avoid shelters and sleep on the streets. Our dedicated staffers who work so very hard to care for those in need could find themselves affected by the illnesses around them. I also worry about a backlash against the poor in the same way I’ve heard about a backlash in some areas against those with Asian heritage.
Amid all of this social distancing, one of our big challenges is balancing the need for touch as a part of human care and a sign of affection with the need to limit contact. I’ve written before how one of our clients was extremely grateful to receive just a simple handshake from one of our volunteers. It meant so much to him because no one had shaken his hand for 10 years – a full decade. That’s heartbreaking, and sadly, we probably would not do that right now.
All of this makes the current Lenten season dramatically different from any other in our lifetimes, no matter how old we are. Through it all, Lent remains a time to get in better touch with God’s love for us and do our best to “spring clean” our souls in preparation for the glory of Easter. This year, it has also become a time to think about how we live as a community, protect each other from illness, and be part of the solution to a global health crisis.
Let’s band together. We show our love for each other by following the instructions of health experts to wash hands, avoid crowds, and isolate ourselves as much as possible if we feel ill. Living the values of charity, we can take care of each other, particularly our elderly and in some cases our young, while also making sure that we are instruments of God’s love and grace to anyone who needs our support.
These weeks offer challenges we’ve never had to face. We can’t attend Mass. Our routines are disrupted. We worry about ourselves and our loved ones. Some of us may even need to fight the virus itself. St. Paul tells us that “all things work for good for those who love God.” (Romans 8:28) Relying on God and each other, we can meet these challenges, and maybe even bring about new and better ways of taking care of each other in the years to come.
Let’s embrace the idea of cleanliness, both physical and spiritual – think of it as Purell and penance. As we clean our hands, may we also clean our souls this Lent. “Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow,” (Psalm 51:9) says the penitential Psalm we pray often at this time of year.
I pray for all who have contracted the virus, particularly those who have died. I pray for healthcare workers who sacrifice so much to take care of those who are ill. I pray for our Catholic Charities staff, volunteers and clients. I pray that we will be able to resume public worship for Reconciliation services and the beautiful liturgies of Holy Week and Easter.
In the meantime, may we continue to draw closer to God and each other this Lent, seek forgiveness where we have failed, and ask for help where we can do better. Let us remember that Jesus Christ has already conquered all. We need only accept God’s love and the gift of eternal life.
May God bless us all.
(Msgr. Enzler serves as the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. This is his “Faith in Action” column for the March 19 print edition of the archdiocese's Catholic Standard newspaper.)
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