Catholic Parishes Gear Up for Another COVID Lent

Catholic parishes are helping the faithful, both digitally and in person, to follow Jesus Christ more closely even as the pandemic continues.

Filipino Catholics receive ashes during Ash Wednesday 2020 in Paranaque, Philippines. The Vatican recommended in 2021 that ashes be sprinkled on the head rather than marking the forehead due to the pandemic.
Filipino Catholics receive ashes during Ash Wednesday 2020 in Paranaque, Philippines. The Vatican recommended in 2021 that ashes be sprinkled on the head rather than marking the forehead due to the pandemic. (photo: Ezra Acayan / Getty Images)

While many Catholics may feel the penitential season of Lent has not let up since 2020, the Church’s parishes are once again preparing amid the ongoing pandemic to help Catholics “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” 

For most Catholics, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday — and just a little earlier for Eastern Catholics — and concludes in Holy Week when the Church commemorates the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The whole 40-day season is geared toward helping Catholics live with Christ and die to themselves as his disciples, through fasting, prayer and almsgiving.

“Lent is a journey,” hastening toward the Day of the Cross and the Lord’s resurrection, Melkite Father Hezekias Carnazzo, founding executive director of the Virginia-based Institute of Catholic Culture, told the Register. “And so Christians from the earliest days have prepared themselves to meet the Lord.”

“We die to ourselves, so that we may live with God,” the priest said. By fasting, the Church invites people to give a Yes to God even though their bodies want to say No to the cross. Father Carnazzo, a priest of the Eparchy of Newton, noted that while the Church puts in place minimal requirements for fasting — just Ash Wednesday and Good Friday remain as obligatory fast days in the Latin Church — Catholics should seek to go above and beyond that as their health allows. 

Fasting must be accompanied by prayer, he added, because prayer leads the faithful to cast themselves on the loving mercy of the Father, just as the Prodigal Son did; otherwise, fasting becomes “the exercise of my own will rather than God’s.” 

And, finally, Catholics must practice almsgiving in Lent, relieving the needs of the poor or tithing to the Church’s mission, recognizing that “God has given us everything, and the proper response is to give of ourselves back to him, so that the things that I have are the Lord’s.”

Father Carnazzo added, “In charitable giving, I reenact the life of God [as a communion of love] within my life — I take what is mine, and I give to others.”

At St. Raymond of Penafort Catholic Church in Philadelphia, the predominantly African American parish has a strong culture of discipleship and parish stewardship to make this Lent a spiritually enriching journey.

“We’ve been blessed to build small groups through the years,” said Father Chris Walsh, St. Raymond’s pastor. The parish has small groups for couples, men, women, various ages, high-school students and young adults. 

They’re working on getting one group running that focuses on college-age adults. Some are in person, but most of the small groups meet via Zoom, where participants reflect on and discuss the readings for the upcoming Sunday Mass. 

“We’re just trying to immerse people in the word of God and tweaking the questions around hope and courage in this historic time,” he said, “and including a challenge, because a lot of people in those small groups have not been back at church [on Sunday] yet.” 

The theme for Lent this year is “Forward in Christ” with four dimensions: to worship, be equipped in knowledge of their faith, invite others to know Jesus, and share their witness. 

“Even if you’re still at home, those elements have to be there,” he said.

Father Walsh said he has planned his Lenten Sunday preaching series to focus on the virtues of St. Joseph in this Year of St. Joseph. The current list he envisions is patience, chastity, justice, prudence, courage and faith, drawing from Scriptures and the life of St. Joseph. 

“I had a parishioner years ago tell me that ‘priests are really good at telling us to turn away from sin, but they never tell us how.’ So I’m holding up the virtues as a way of the ‘how.’”

But he does not plan on sprinkling the faithful’s heads with ashes on Ash Wednesday, which is one of two options set out by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and featured in a Vatican guidance. The health-care professionals in his congregation advised him to go with the archdiocese’s second option and distribute ashes with disposable cotton swabs in order to prevent contact exposure to the coronavirus.


Drive-in Confession 

In Quincy, Massachusetts, the St. John the Baptist and St. Joseph parish collaborative will be making a special focus on the joy of reconciliation with Jesus Christ through Lent, including offering drive-in confessions. 

“Our whole theme is reconciliation,” said Andrea Alberti, the parish collaborative’s evangelization and outreach director. 

On Ash Wednesday, the parish will have both indoor liturgies as well as an Ash Wednesday drive-in, for people to receive ashes via cotton swabs while safely ensconced in their cars.

The parish is livestreaming Stations of the Cross and also making use of groups that meet via Zoom to keep people spiritually connected. 

Father Matt Williams, the pastor, has a program called “Re-Zoom”; and this Lent, people will be reading and discussing together Edward Sri’s book No Greater Love: A Biblical Walk Through Christ’s Passion.

The parish also does a novena prayer every night to Our Lady, Undoer of Knots over Zoom.

“We’re encouraging people to return to the sacrament and to Jesus,” Alberti said.

As far as it is possible, the parish plans to go forward with a weekend retreat called “Hunger for Justice,” which involves young people bringing food and socks to people who are homeless in Boston. They watch The Passion of the Christ and do a living Stations of the Cross through the city, as well. 

“We don’t know what COVID will or will not allow this year,” Alberti said. 

Last year, they did a virtual retreat, as well, and created gift baskets for the local food pantry. 

“We’ll do something like that again under COVID guidelines,” she said. 


Almost ‘Normal’ Lent

For some parishes in various parts of the country, this Lent will be almost a return to normal. Father Ian VanHeusen, a priest assigned to St. Peter parish in Greenville, North Carolina, and the Newman ministry at Eastern Carolina University, told the Register that he expects Lent to proceed as normal, but with social-distancing, masks and hand sanitizer. 

But that does not mean the spiritual and emotional needs of Catholics have gone back to pre-pandemic levels. Father VanHeusen said he is particularly concerned about the decline of people’s mental health during the pandemic. 

While he has officiated one funeral due to COVID, he has done two funerals for suicide, and has pastorally dealt with the aftermath of two suicide attempts. 

“This year we’re going to be doing a bit more,” he told the Register, of his Lenten initiatives. 

The parish is planning a mission with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. And the parish is planning to extend additional times for the sacrament of reconciliation through Lent.

With the young adults, he said, they have Bible studies and socials planned (following medical professionals and health officials’ guidelines) to help people come to know and follow Jesus more closely.

One of Father VanHeusen’s messages to people is to remember, while they take precautions for the health crisis, to “not be afraid” and remember that “God is in charge.”

The priest explained he wants the faithful to remember that the Gospel mandate to minister to Christ in others does not have a COVID exception. Catholics do not have an exception to performing the works of charity to the poor and suffering, he added, when Jesus Christ himself ministered to the lepers. 

“We’re still called to serve God and our neighbor,” he said, in the midst of the pandemic. 

He is also encouraging prayer, with perpetual adoration, and fasting, which are standard aspects of every Lent, along with almsgiving. Fasting, he explained, helps not only to discipline the body, but makes a person more “emotionally intelligent” to their faults lying under the surface of life and their need to invite God to enter into their lives. 

But above all, the priest wants people to have courage to deepen their Christian life, knowing God is ultimately in control, even in the pandemic.

“God works all things to the good for those who believe,” he said. “And I want people to know that.”