Sr. Jean Agnes Geraghty, a retired hospital chaplain, prays during Mass in West Islip, New York, February 11 (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz).

Every Lenten season is ushered in with the reading from the prophet Joel 2: 12–13, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. How does one enter a time of fasting, weeping, and rending of hearts when you feel like you’ve already been in one for so long—when COVID-19, racism, xenophobia, political drama, ecclesial division, and the Capitol insurrection have kept us in a state of mourning and weeping for the past year? The pandemic closed many parishes during the Lenten season of 2020, and even though the liturgical seasons have come and gone, I find myself—and I’d wager that many are with me—in a state of perpetual Lent.

As I’m bombarded with reminders on social media that Lent is upon us, I’ve observed a spiritual disconnect. The way that our Catholic institutions are inviting us to enter this season makes it sound like it’s liturgical business as usual. Posts on how to prepare for Lent read like pro-forma templates, statements that in choosing not to address the problems of the day can’t help but fail to inspire. I see Mass and service times posted for Ash Wednesday with small caveats about continued parish restrictions; since I live in Los Angeles, one of the cities hit hardest by the pandemic, I know that I will not be receiving ashes this year. Yet I’m not as disappointed about it as I might have been a year ago. In this moment, these social-media posts can leave us feeling unseen and unheard by the very Church that is entrusted to walk with its people. Our personal and collective concerns require attention, acknowledgement, and accompaniment. It is not Lent as usual.

This Lent presents us with an opportunity to examine the desert that we have been living in for the past year.

Church leaders cannot blithely ask hard-hit communities to consider fasting and almsgiving as unemployment rates rise and families struggle to meet expenses and put food on the table. How can we speak of mourning and weeping as a liturgical spiritual shift when the more than 485,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19 have left behind so many who already mourn and weep—not only loved ones, but also health-care professionals who serve the dying in their final moments? We have been mourning, we have been weeping. We continue to live in quarantine, longing for the company of family and friends we haven’t been able to see. A nudge toward private prayer and to take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them (Matthew 6:1) seems almost pointless.

So what is to be done? This Lent presents us with an opportunity to examine the desert that we have been living in for the past year. If Church leaders and institutions wish to lead us in our Lenten spiritual journey, it is imperative that they unequivocally acknowledge the seriousness of the times and the horrors the pandemic has wrought. They need to provide opportunities for people to unpack the traumas of lost livelihood, lost loved ones, racism, and xenophobia. They need to raise up their voices and recommit to a pastoral, merciful, and spiritual engagement with the body politic, lest the Church lose itself in political divisions. To not do this would be a disservice to those in need of healing and justice; a disservice to those in need of conversion, because they have hardened their hearts and refused to accept the truth of our social ailments; and a disservice to everyone in between. Our Lenten promises, practices, and ministries should orient us toward these aims.

I always keep the end in mind when I begin my Lenten journey: the grace of Easter. Although I may currently find myself in an emotional state of perpetual Lent, there have been glimpses of the resurrection, moments of joy and hope. In a way, an unexpected grace of this past year has been a heightened awareness that life is in fact a season of Lent with glimmers of divine incarnation, death, and resurrection. When Lent invites us to enter the desert—to return to God with our whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning—it is actually an invitation to recognize that we are already there, because there is suffering and injustice somewhere.

Claudia Avila Cosnahan is the Mission & Partnerships Director for Commonweal and an instructor and consultant for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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