The penitential season of Lent is upon us. Below are excerpts from my past columns in The Bishop’s Bulletin encouraging taking full advantage of this special time in the Church calendar.
From March 2010:
When I was growing up I was not a Catholic and attended public schools. In my mind, there was something intriguing and mysterious about the Catholics in my class. They were special. It was especially apparent when the kids would come to school on Ash Wednesday with smudges on their foreheads. The ashes we understood, but the thought that they would go to church before school was impressive. They already had been tagged lucky because of released time. Once a week they would leave school early to go to the Catholic Church for religious education while the rest of us had to stay and study. Lunch on Fridays accommodated the fact that they could not eat meat. This blatant respect for church practices would probably be seen as unconstitutional today. But by their public witness they stood out.
After converting to the Church I talked with some Catholics who went to the public school. They did not view it as special at all. In their minds these Church practices made them stand out as strange, separated from the rest of us. The ashes on the forehead and leaving school early identified them in their minds as different. They did not want to stand out. Most of us don’t.
Yet sometimes it is necessary for us to stand out from the crowd because we are Catholics. To have the willingness and ability to do so takes courage in a culture that encourages sameness and occasionally ridicules religious ritual. Lent can be a time when as we grow in faith we gain the confidence to stand out because we live what we believe.
While it is hard as kids to appreciate the value of standing out as different from others, as Catholics and Christians that is exactly what we must do and be as sincere believers. Wouldn’t it be great if because of the way in which we wear our ashes and participate in the rituals and devotions of the Church this Lent someone would find us intriguing, even special, in a way that leads them to conversion? Conversion, after all, is what Lent is all about, for all of us.
From March 2014
Among the most warm and comforting memories when growing up was that of my grandfather sitting in a rocking chair with one of his grandchildren on his lap. He was a quiet man, English reserved, with a joyful heart. He spent most of his life in greenhouses, among God’s creation, helping develop new varieties of roses. Our family was blessed with having roses at home nearly year round, as they were tested for color, smell and resiliency. There was a calm and stability in his presence.
He came to mind recently when I heard once again the old country song written by the Judds, entitled “Grandpa, tell me ‘bout the good old days”. Among its lyrics are these: “Sometimes it feels like the world’s gone crazy. Grandpa, take me back to yesterday, where the line between right and wrong didn’t seem so hazy.” “Was a promise really something people kept and not just something they would say and then forget?” “Did families really bow their heads and pray? Did daddies really never go away?” “Grandpa, tell me ‘bout the good old days.”
We always need to be careful about glamourizing the past. The good old days likely were never as good as we remember them.
Our human nature tends to filter out so much, especially the painful. Yet when we reflect on the moral haziness of our day recalling the past and evaluating why change has come can lead to a healthy examination of conscience. Lent offers us a special time to do so.
Lent is a time for honest reflection and an opportunity for putting our spiritual house in order. Let us not trivialize its importance or sleep our way through these forty days. What would grandpa (or grandma) say?
From March 2010
Some years ago, before I became a bishop, I became discouraged by a number of things. To try to remedy that down feeling, I reflected on how each day I might be more a person of hope. I do not remember whether these are original or I borrowed them, but they guide me still.
- Each day we can identify one blessing, a gift from God that is unique to us. It might be a special person, a moving experience, a response to art or music, or a breathtaking burst in creation. There is such beauty around us, even in March. Each day is itself a gift. That genius anonymous wrote: “Look at the bright side, no matter how old you are, you are younger than you will ever be again.” Sickness and accidents remind us of how fragile life can be. May we see each day as a gift to be used well for the glory of God.
- Each day we can reflect on something wonderful that has happened at some point in our lives that we did not anticipate and that changed us forever. One of our human tendencies is to try to plan out how things should go. Prudence suggests that we do so, while always being open to God’s ways. When we let go of trying to control, God’s grace moves us in beautiful and often unexpected ways. For me one such moment was the discovery of the power and the presence of Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist, body, blood, soul, divinity. For this gift to be followed by the call to priesthood which allows me the privilege of being Christ’s instrument is awesome and humbling each day.
- Each day we can remind ourselves of something that makes us smile. Anonymous also wrote: “it takes thirty-four muscles to frown and only thirteen to smile. Why make the extra effort?” For me the mere sight of a little baby brings a smile. The miracle of birth is a sign of hope.
- Each day we can remember a saint whose example inspires us. They can be those known to all, such as Blessed (now Saint) Teresa of Calcutta. Or they can be those quiet saints around us who live their faith well and carry their crosses so beautifully. They exist in every parish. The Blessed Mother is the most profound example for us all.
- Each day we can take time to pray and to rest in God. It does not take a lot of time to remind ourselves that our loving and merciful God is with us and that we need him. When we do not see God as the focus of our lives we can turn in on ourselves. When we pray with humility, we can lift our vision from the moment to the transcendent which can bring peace, perspective and hope.
As the season of Lent continues toward Easter, may we do what we can each day to assure that as Christians we are people of hope for all to see, signs of hope for one another.