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Reflecting on Lent as a Season of Grace

Charles O’Connor, OFM Features

This is part of a series of video Lenten reflections posted by St. Anthony Shrine, Boston, on its Facebook page.

In our ministries, we serve people from all different walks of life, and of varied ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds: those who are young and old, rich and poor, liberal and conservative. In my experience as a friar, when you ask those who are Catholic, for example in our parishes, how they understand the season of Lent, a number of them will speak about Lent, as a time to give something up, like a certain food that they really like, or perhaps a certain beverage, like a favorite soda or alcoholic drink. Sometimes they think of Lent as a time to add something to their daily routine, like going to Mass a couple of extra times during the week or praying the rosary by themselves or with their family, or donating to a favorite charity, or perhaps getting involved in an outreach community project. These practices are all well and good, for Lent is indeed a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

What I like to suggest to them is another way of looking at Lent; that is, as a season of grace — in other words, a gift that God and the Church give them to take a closer look at themselves in the light of what Jesus teaches us in the Gospels.

Since the two greatest commandments are the love of God and the love of neighbor, it is important to think about their meaning during this season.

What better time is there than Lent to examine ourselves as friars, and to challenge those we serve a little more intensely, regarding our relationship with God and with how we relate to the people around us? During this time of the pandemic, it seems to me that this examination is very important especially when we are all tempted sometimes to close in on ourselves and lose our hope and optimism.

When I was stationed in Callicoon, New York, a few years ago, I would ask my parishioners what their prayer life was like. Naturally, I got a lot of different answers. One answer that usually predominated was that their prayer consisted of reciting formalized prayers. They prayed the rosary or prayed their own set prayers from a favorite prayer book or from various prayer cards. Some reflected on a passage of Scripture.

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A few of them, however, talked about their prayer as being less formal. And it is this type of prayer that I reinforced with them. It’s a form of prayer that is less structured and more personal — prayer in which we share with the Lord our own personal thoughts and words as if we were talking to a friend or loved one. To share with Christ where we find ourselves at the present moment: our feelings, our joys, our sorrows, our concerns, our work, family, our ups and downs. Simply put, as I suggested to my parishioners: prayer that is less formal and more personal.

With regard to my parishioners’ relationships with others, I would sense in my conversations with them that a lot of their relationships were rather perfunctory and superficial. I have to put myself in this category as well. Lent can be a good time to stress to the people we serve the importance of examining their human relationships. Could their relationships and mine be deeper, by sharing more of our personal selves, especially with those who are close to us? Perhaps it may be a matter of praying for the courage to examine a relationship that is broken and to seek ways for reconciliation. It may be reconnecting with a friend with whom we have lost contact. Perhaps it may be stretching ourselves beyond our comfort zone to reach out to those who share different lifestyles and political and religious beliefs.

Lent can be a good time to emphasize to the people we serve the importance of examining their human relationships. (Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels)

Making small efforts during this season of Lent to draw personally closer to God and to those around us can pay fruitful dividends. It can bring about a richer life for ourselves and others.

I know for myself that at this point in Lent I may be asking myself, as I do every year, where is this season going? As we pass the halfway point, we may wonder, what have I done?

Wherever we are in our Lenten journey, I pray that this season may be a time of grace for us as friars and for the people entrusted to our care. It is Christ and His Church’s gift to us. Let’s make the most of it.

Charles O’Connor, who professed his first vows as a Franciscan friar in 1968, lives at St. Anthony Shrine, Boston, Massachusetts, where he was assigned last summer. Previously, from 1983 until 2002, he taught scripture at Christ the King Seminary in Western New York.

Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, current event, holy day, or other seasonal themes – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office. Reflections published previously in HNP Today can be found in the Features section of the HNP website.