I’ve been thinking about Lent as we begin the season this year.  It goes without saying that I’ve concluded that we need these forty days in the desert more than ever.  But how should we spend this sojourn?  As we have in the past?  Or should there be something different about the trek this year?

We all know that Lent is supposed to be a period of fasting, praying, and alms giving.  I certainly won’t argue against that, but I wonder if, in the context of our praying, we ought to emphasize listening.

There is no denying that there has been a dearth of good news lately regarding the Church.  The stories regarding sexual abuse of children, and the cover-up and consequent enabling of the dysfunction, continue.  The numbers of people no longer participating in Sunday mass accelerates.  Some have ceased because of the scandals.  Others are leaving for other faith communities because the mass isn’t reaching them anymore.  If that is pursued, it becomes clear that the preaching is arid and people are no longer feeling in challenge to full, active and conscious participation in the Liturgy.  Many who were raised in and committed to the spirit of Vatican Council II wonder why their current experience makes them wonder if the Council ever really happened.  They feel like King Arthur sitting around the chards of the Round Table remembering that once there was a Camelot.

I was a student during the Second Vatican Council and can remember the excitement, the enthusiasm and the anticipation engendered as every day we prayed for the Spirit to influence the Council Fathers.  Of course no one could have imagined what changes were possible since we had been taught and only experienced the timelessness and perpetuity of the Church, to say nothing of the worldwide sameness of the mass.  But I also remember a professor telling us that he didn’t want to be a pessimist but he thought that there would be initial days of excitement and renewal following the Council’s declarations.  Then a ways down the road there would be an age of reversal and retrenchment, attempts to reinstate the pre-Vatican II days.  A century from the Council’s closing, the Church of Vatican II would emerge.  Well, we’re almost half way through that period and he seems to have been prophetic.

I share those thoughts, not to join in the pessimism of these days but the encourage any who might be struggling to stay in the trenches, so to speak.  That’s why we need Lent this year and need to focus on listening in prayer as we make our way.  And we need to find people of similar mind to journey and pray with and so support each other in faith.

If we have a historical sense, we know that the Church has been through dark and scandalous days before, periods that make what is happening today seem inconsequential in comparison.  Think of the days of the Inquisition.  Think of the papal sins in those years of papal power, when popes and bishops were equivalent to earthly monarchs.  With power and wealth come corruption and a distancing from the Gospel.  In those dark days there was little in the official church that evidenced Jesus ministry and preaching, his service to the poor and his invitation to recognize the universality and unconditionally of God’s love.

There were horror stories that continue to scandalize to this day.  But the Church survived.  How?  The people and some of the clergy resurrected the practices of our ancestors in the faith.  The people gathered in small groups, in homes, pondered the Scriptures and celebrated Eucharist.  As in periods of persecution so in these times the Church as the people of God flourished.  So will it happen today.

That brings me back to the starting point.  We need to emphasize listening prayer alone and with others during this Lenten period.  These forty days of prayer fasting and alms giving reflect the forty days Jesus spent in the desert at the beginning of his public life, the forty days that culminated in the great temptations, the struggle with the devil.  During that confrontation, Jesus clarified his mission knowing that his purpose was to do the Father’s will and proclaim salvation to the poor.  He may have been hungry and exhausted as he emerged from the desert experience, but he was also renewed.  So will we be if we do what Jesus did.

Last Wednesday you were marked with the ashes and were challenged to turn away from sin and believe the Good News.  That admonition is not meant to be depressing or negative, but a joyful reason to hope.  As you enter the desert invite the Lord to journey with you.  Remember the hymn?  Be with me Lord when I am in trouble.  Be with me Lord, I pray.  Live that him and be conscious of the Lord’s presence.  If you open your heart and listen, you will heard the Lord speak to you to strengthen your faith and encourage you to celebrate and witness to what it means to be one with Jesus.

It seems to me that the most important awakening that could happen during this Lent would be to the reality of the Priesthood of the Baptized.  The Second Vatican Council defined the Church as the People of God.  You are part of that people.  The Church teaches that in Baptism you died to sin, were united with Christ, and rose to live his life.  Focus on your identity with Christ as you make the journey this year.  Be strengthened in the exercise of your Baptismal Priesthood.  That is expressed through your full, active, and conscious participation in the Eucharistic Liturgy.  It is also expressed in your service to the poor.  If as you are praying you feel the urge to begin again, or to continue in the venture, that is the Spirit that Christ poured out on the Church when he promised to be with the Church through all of time.  Believe that.

And find others who feel the same urging.  The forming of small faith communities imitates the actions of our ancestors in the faith who realized that this journey on the Way was not meant to be solitary.  They needed community to be strengthened against persecution.  They needed each other to stand in opposition to corruption.  There were two on their way to Emaus when they encountered the Stranger.  The gathering filled the Upper Room when the Spirit and fire descended on the infant church.  The Eucharist only happens when there are at least two or three gathered in Christ’s name.  Believe that.

This is a desert journey that you have begun.  If you are feeling discouraged in your faith for whatever reason, recognize that you are entering this retreat with Jesus to struggle strengthened by his presence to shrug off what oppresses you to emerge renewed and refreshed, reborn in faith as Easter dawns.




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