(This the “Faith in Action” column for the February Catholic Standard by Msgr. John Enzler, the president and CEO Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Washington.)
One year ago, we were about to enter the important season of Lent. We were aware of a new and spreading coronavirus, including cases here in the United States, but I do not think any of us knew how much our lives were about to change.
Just two weeks into Lent, everything began to be shut down to contain the virus. Offices closed. Schools closed. Many stores closed. Sports leagues ended their seasons. Our churches closed, too.
Without question, last year was the strangest and most disruptive Lent of my life, especially as a priest. In this season when we make special efforts to draw closer to God, we did not have Mass most Sundays. The Triduum was basically canceled, and Easter was done by livestream wherever possible.
Here we are a year later at the beginning of Lent 2021, and we continue to face significant challenges. We may find it difficult to enter fully into this season of preparation, repentance, and sacrifice. As you consider ways to grow in your faith during this unique time, may I suggest looking back over your worries, struggles and sacrifices since last Lent. We have lived in a Lenten-like period for an entire year.
COVID-19 remains a serious threat. We still need to wear masks, keep safe distances, and wash our hands as much as possible. Capacities continue to be limited at churches, restaurants, gyms, stores, and other public places. These protocols are important as we do what we can to minimize the virus’s spread while hoping and praying that vaccines will work and be distributed quickly.
In addition to the weight of the pandemic, we experienced the sadness of true racial inequity with the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others. Lives were lost because of a small number of police officers who somehow forgot their role to protect others and not harm them.
We also experienced political unrest like never before, including the events of Jan. 6 when our beloved Capitol right here in our city was attacked. I still cannot believe that doors and windows were breached, and protesters rioted in the People’s House.
As we come to Lent 2021, I would suggest that all of our struggles, pain, worries and setbacks, all the death and sickness of this past year needs to be brought to prayer and sacrifice as we try to get back on track with our own journey with the Lord.
All the pain of the past year is real. We now need to focus on how we as spiritual beings and people of God are doing in our relationship with the Lord. Amid very real distractions and disappointments, it is easy to forget that our joys, sorrows, and even our very lives should be all about the Lord.
The Gospel at Mass on the last Saturday in January was the story of Jesus sleeping in the boat as a storm raged. The disciples awakened him in fear, and he promptly quieted the wind and the sea, “and there was great calm.” (Mark 4:35-41)
This is the same Gospel that was read when Cardinal Gregory was installed as our archbishop in May 2019. I will never forget his homily that day. He said so beautifully that throughout the storms of life, “Jesus is in the boat with us.”
That would be a great theme for our Lenten season. Jesus is with us always and journeys with us the whole way.
I like the image that life is a journey across the sea as we head for the shore of our eternal homeland. On the way, there are strong winds and storms. There are difficulties that seem almost too much to bear. It is at these times that we need to remind ourselves and those around us that Jesus is in the boat with us, helping us find our way through struggles that can appear almost insurmountable in today’s world.
We can do that through the three pillars of Lent that Jesus gave us: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. If you are looking for ways to give alms, please consider our annual Catholic Charities Lenten Food Drive, which is being done virtually this year. The problem of hunger has increased dramatically during the pandemic, and your generous financial support continues to be critical in meeting this urgent need. You can find out more at https://www.catholiccharitiesdc.org/Lenten-Food-Drive-2021.
We seem to talk most in Lent about what to give up, but perhaps we could add something as well. Could you spend a few more minutes in prayer each day talking to the Lord about your worries, your struggles, and your faith? As you do so, unite the crosses you are bearing to the cross of Jesus. Suffering need not be wasted or pointless. It can be redemptive when we give over to Jesus our difficulties and join them to his cross and his Passion.
Our sufferings are a form of fasting. Many involve sacrifice and self-denial, and many of us have already given up a lot this past year. Let us take time to reflect on that and join our efforts to the Lord Jesus. We will draw closer to him and more fully appreciate his ultimate sacrifice.
I think you could say that we have lived a year of Lent, with 40 more days to come. Let us finish strong. When we celebrate the glory of Easter in just six weeks, may we be able to sense more than ever through the gift of vaccines and other efforts that the virus is almost behind us. Let us pray that we can put on our Easter finest and begin to come back to Church, celebrating and giving thanks that pain, struggle and fasting always culminate in the gift of the Resurrection.
Jesus is in the boat with us. Jesus died for us. And because of that gift, we will live forever.