Rome (Italy). Lent is the ‘strong time’ in preparation for Easter, the heart of the liturgical year and of the life of every Christian, a time of penance and of conversion as Pope Francis reminds us, “to proclaim and accomplish the possibility of turning to the Lord with your whole heart and with your whole life.” We are living a special Lent that has been transformed into a ‘quarantine’ with the prohibition of leaving our homes and with the suspension of all celebrations and practices connected with religious worship. The Churches are closed, but priests, religious, laity of the pastoral communities are responding creatively and with passion to what is a time of even sacramental emergency.
Pope Francis begins his General Audience of 26 February 2020, Ash Wednesday, with the title, ‘Lent, enter into the desert’: “Let us imagine that we are in a desert. The first feeling would be that of being enveloped by a great silence: no sound besides the wind and our own breathing. The desert is a place of detachment from the din that surrounds us.”
Even without knowing that soon we would all be experiencing this condition, it describes a scenario very similar to what we are living: closed churches, streets, squares, and deserted parks, uninhabited offices, an unusual silence that nobody was used to. We are experiencing the deprivation of the superfluous, of returning to the essential:
“The desert is the place of the essential. Let us look at our lives: how many useless things surround us! We chase after thousands of things that seem necessary and that in reality are not. How good it would be for us to free ourselves from many superfluous realities, to rediscover what matters, to rediscover the faces of those who are beside us! (…) Fasting is knowing how to give up things that are vain and superfluous in order to reach the essential. Fasting is actually going to the essential. (…) It is seeking the beauty of a simpler life.”
A ‘healthy’ fast in certain aspects, because we rediscover what really matters and we strengthen relationships, feeling more united, however, the fasting experience that we would never have thought of living is fasting from the sacraments. The dioceses and individual parishes immediately organized themselves with direct streaming to get in touch with the faithful and make their closeness felt through Eucharistic celebrations and moments of prayer. It should be noted that: “Virtual reality cannot replace the real presence of Christ … and the cult participated within a human community in flesh and blood.” (Pontifical Council for Social Communications, The Church and the Internet no. 9, 22 February 2002)
What we are experiencing therefore is a prolonged Good Friday, without the Eucharist, but as Don Bosco said, “If you cannot receive Communion sacramentally, at least make a spiritual Communion that consists of the ardent desire to receive Jesus in our heart.” (MB III, p. 13) The Celebrations through the means of communication allow us to “break the bread of the Word” and to gather together in prayer.
Significant are the gestures of Pope Francis during this Lent, to make himself close to all the Christians and to intercede with them for the end of the pandemic. He desired two strong moments: March 25, with the praying of the Our Father with all Christians, and March 27 with a time of prayer on the sagrata of Saint Peter’s Basilica, without the faithful, with a special Urbi et Orbi blessing, as he had announced after the Angelus of 22 March: “We will listen to the Word of God, we will lift up our supplication, we will adore the Blessed Sacrament, with which at the end, I will give the Urbi et Orbi blessing, to which will be connected the possibility of receiving the plenary indulgence.”
On the day of the 27th, the CEI Presidency also invited all the Bishops to live the “Friday of Mercy of the Italian Church”, with a pilgrimage to a cemetery in their diocese, to pray for the many coronavirus patients who died without the comfort of relatives, nor the sacraments: “This will be the ‘Friday of Mercy’ of the Italian Church; a Friday of Lent, in which the gaze on the Crucifix invokes the consoling hope of the Resurrection.”
Mother Yvonne Reungoat in her Circular n. 995, reminds us of the importance of prayer, “Prayer becomes an important sign and Pope Francis gives us the example, accompanying the Church and the world in the ways that are compatible with the situation.”
These are gestures that speak of a Pastor who accompanies the faithful along the steep slopes of history, trying not to let the water of consolation and hope be missing, giving meaning to a fast that is not an end in itself, because after Good Friday, the Easter of Resurrection always comes.