Lenten prayer can rejuvenate our hope as pandemic drags on
My dear brothers and
sisters in Christ:
I hesitate to mention once again the coronavirus pandemic, but as it remains a serious concern for us and prominent in the media, I thought I should offer a reflection intended to bring hope, lest we become a people without hope, which is so contrary to the message of Easter, which we long to celebrate. We cannot live without hope, and part of the work of evangelization is to alleviate the heavy burden of despair.
In his column “A Different Inauguration” written for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Father Paul D. Scalia quoted St. John Henry Newman: “… serious and anxious minds, alive to the honor of God and the needs of man, are apt to consider no times so perilous as their own.” Father Scalia noted that Cardinal Newman offered this reflection while bemoaning the trials of his own 19th century, which he believed to be the worst of all times, commenting that they were so severe, they “would appall and make dizzy even such courageous hearts as St. Athanasius, St. Gregory I, or Saint Gregory VII. And they would confess that dark as the prospect of their own day was to them severally, ours has a darkness in kind from any that has been before it” (St. John Henry Newman as quoted by Father Paul D. Scalia in The Catholic Thing, January 24, 2021).
How often have we not had this same feeling with so much violence, division, disease, poverty, anxiety and social ills surrounding us? Where do we find hope and tranquility? I believe anyone reading this column knows the answer: not where, but in whom, namely, Jesus Christ. Lent is a season of intense prayer joined to almsgiving, fasting and penance. I believe, as I am confident you do, that Jesus hears our prayers. Jesus carried our ancestors in the faith over troubled times, desperate times, and He continues to carry us.
In his homily at the Opening Mass of the 2016 Knights of Columbus Supreme Convention, Cardinal Thomas Collins, archbishop of Toronto, reminded those present that like the disciples in Holy Scripture “we are sent by the Lord to go ahead of Him on a stormy sea, and if we are faithful in that adventurous mission which he has entrusted to us, we need not fear the wind or the waves, for the Lord who sends us is the Lord who saves us.” Cardinal Collins made this statement quite mindful that “The storms are real, and sometimes sudden and spectacular, as the little boat of the Church is tossed about by forces which at times can seem irresistible, like the raging power of nature. The sea is so great, and our boat is so small” (August 2, 2016).
But it is in these moments of great tragedy and trial that we recognize how much we humans need God. Ironically, in these moments even the most powerful fall to their knees and beg for God’s help. Are not our prayers the most intense in times of great difficulties? It was quite disheartening and sad that when we needed God most in this present pandemic, churches were closed. The real presence of Christ in the Most Holy Eucharist could only be seen on a TV screen and not in the very presence of the Blessed Sacrament. It is true that serious precautions must be taken to keep our sisters and brothers, you my dear people, safe, and in our Diocese we have followed and continue to follow conscientiously all necessary protocols. But at the same time we should afford ourselves the extraordinary privilege of being in the Eucharistic presence to the extent possible and permitted, with due regard for a person’s health condition. The Mass is our most perfect prayer!
Lent is the time to rediscover the power and the need for prayer. Prayer, true prayer, is an act of humility, expressing sincerely our dependence upon God and allowing God to work within us, opening up our mind and heart to God. In a 2016 interview, Cardinal Robert Sarah, until recently the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, stated: “The recognition of the liturgy as the work of God implies a true conversion of the heart. The Second Vatican Council insisted on a major point: In this domain the importance is not what we do, but what God does. No human work can ever accomplish what we find at the heart of the Mass: The sacrifice of the Cross” (Famille Chretienne, May 23, 2016, translated by Christina Broesamle, National Catholic Register, May 31, 2016). This conversion of heart applies to all prayer if it is to be a true communication with the Lord. From this humble prayer is born hope.
Returning now to Father Scalia’s words, he advanced a theme shared in my column last month: “Still, it’s of little use and frequent distraction to try to pinpoint our time’s exact location on the chart of woeful times. What matters is not how today’s evils compare to yesterday’s, but how we respond to them” (Op. cit.). If prayer, rooted in faith, is not central to this response, then in vain are all other responses to human suffering, which loses its transcendent quality, no longer united to the crucified Christ.
Now is the time, the holy season of Lent, to rejuvenate hope; the time to break the walls of isolation and invite Christ more intently into our hearts; to pray in His real presence housed in all the tabernacles of the world.
In his address at his weekly audience on Dec. 9, 2020, Pope Francis spoke beautifully about prayer in these words: “We all experience, at some time or another in our existence, the time of melancholy, of solitude. The Bible is not ashamed of showing our human condition, marked by disease, injustice, the betrayals of friends, or the threat of enemies. At times it seems that everything collapses, that the life lived so far has been in vain. And in these situations, when it seems that everything is falling apart, there is only one way out: the cry, the prayer ‘Lord, help me!’ Prayer can open up a sliver of light in the densest darkness. ‘Lord, help me!’ This opens: it opens up the road, it opens up the path.”
How well Pope Francis understands the suffering of humanity, but he certainly is not without hope, which he sees radiating through prayer. St. Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis’ most recent predecessors, found the strength to fulfill their Petrine Office through prayer and the hope accompanying this prayer. With a great depth of understanding of human nature, Benedict XVI explained the union of prayer and hope: “Human life is a fabric woven of good and evil, of undeserved suffering and of joy and beauty that spontaneously and irresistibly impel us to ask God for that light and that inner strength which support us on earth and reveal a hope beyond the boundaries of death” (Wednesday General Audience, May 4, 2011).
United in prayer during the Lenten season as we draw closer to the heart of all hope, the Resurrection of Our Lord, I remain
Devotedly yours in Christ,
The Most Reverend
Salvatore R. Matano
Bishop of Rochester