It’s been an incredibly long Lent. I’m not talking about the few weeks since Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17. I’m talking about since Feb. 26, 2020, when Lent began last year. That’s about when we started realizing that the coronavirus was not going away quickly.
In early March 2020, Maryland health officials confirmed the first cases in the state of the novel coronavirus, dubbed COVID-19.
Since then, it’s been a long season of fasting and abstinence: fasting from dining in restaurants, abstaining from visiting friends and relatives, abstaining from hugs. Many even had to skip the usual venues for Friday Lenten abstinence – parish fish frys – because it was difficult to distribute food safely. (You can find info about this year’s carry-out and drive-through fish frys online here.)
Even though Archbishop William E. Lori dispensed Catholics in the archdiocese from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass, one hopes that folks are doing a lot of praying. While some have returned to Mass in person – receiving Communion and going to the sacrament of reconciliation, with social distancing – many have been attending Mass online.
We’re coming up on 390,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Maryland, with more than 8,000 deaths – and 29.2 million cases and 527,997 deaths nationwide (as of March 10). That can lead to a lot of despair.
Back in the years leading up to the end of the millennium, Pope John Paul II noted it was not a time for doom and gloom, but a season of hope, as he declared the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. We are at that same point in this pandemic. It’s hard to get away from the stark realities of deaths, illness and restrictions.
But there is good news on the horizon as more vaccine becomes available. About 10 percent of Marylanders have received at least the first dose of a vaccine, and the positivity rate in the state (the percentage of confirmed cases among those tested) is below 5 percent for the first time since November, a benchmark that puts us in the World Health Organization’s “green” category.
Pope Francis also beckons us to hope. As Christians pray, fast and give alms during Lent, they also should consider giving a smile and offering a kind word to people feeling alone or frightened because of the coronavirus pandemic, he said.
“Love rejoices in seeing others grow. Hence it suffers when others are anguished, lonely, sick, homeless, despised or in need,” the pope wrote in his message for Lent 2021.
“In these times of trouble, when everything seems fragile and uncertain, it may appear challenging to speak of hope. Yet Lent is precisely the season of hope, when we turn back to God who patiently continues to care for his creation which we have often mistreated,” he said.
“In order to give hope to others, it is sometimes enough simply to be kind, to be ‘willing to set everything else aside in order to show interest, to give the gift of a smile, to speak a word of encouragement, to listen amid general indifference,’” the pope said, quoting his recent encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti.”
“In these days of deep uncertainty about the future, let us keep in mind the Lord’s word to his Servant, ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you’ (Is 43:1),” the pope wrote.
It will take months, perhaps the rest of the year, to get to the point where enough people have been vaccinated that everything can return to normal – or a new normal. It will be exceedingly good to get back to Mass and the sacraments, resume gatherings with friends and families, and participate in parish activities and in-person classes.
As Pope Francis reminds us: “Every moment of our lives is a time for believing, hoping and loving.”
This Lent is a time for us to focus and prepare, not only for Christ’s Resurrection at Easter, but for the coming year of little “resurrections” as we begin to come out of this long time of sorrow.
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