“The Lentiest Lent we’ve ever Lented.” Those words make up my favorite meme, which gained great traction on social media during the first few months of 2020. Even those who aren’t Catholic or Christian found themselves relating to this catchy phrase. Thanks to the coronavirus, we’ve all been put through some version of our own “Lentiest Lent.” Although Lent is only a six-week religious season beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending right before Easter Sunday, in 2020 it feels as if it will never end.
One day, we were going about our lives: working, studying, praying, playing, and tending to our families. The next day, or so it seemed, we were face-to-face with something that looked and felt like a modern-day horror movie. When I see doctors and nurses covered from head to toe in protective gear, it’s like watching a live remake of the 1995 film Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman. Although that movie is twenty-five years old, the story about Hoffman’s character, a doctor trying to find a cure for a deadly virus traced to a foreign land, strikes eerily close to home.
But it’s not Hollywood that has struck us.
It’s real life—real life in the form of a pandemic that’s turning everything upside down. As of this writing, the long-term impact of the coronavirus is still hidden. Within just these first few months of the outbreak in the United States, the pandemic has taken tens of thousands of lives and forced the layoffs of millions of workers.
COVID-19 is painting a dramatically different daily landscape in many areas of our lives, even erasing simple pleasures such as dinners at our favorite restaurant and leisurely afternoons of shopping. Offices, schools, and churches were closed indefinitely. For Catholics, that meant no public Masses, no weddings, funerals, or baptisms. Churches in Rome—including St. Peter’s Basilica—closed their doors. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site of the tomb of Christ in the Holy Land, was shut down for the first time since the Black Plague, nearly seven hundred years ago. Other major religions did the same, canceling services and all public gatherings. What was happening? How could this be? When will it be over?
The even larger, more haunting question for so many, including people of faith remains: Where is God in all of this?
Across faith and lifestyle spectrums, people are searching for inspiration and answers and in a very direct way. According to research released in March of 2020 by the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture, the number of Google searches for the word “prayer” greatly increased as the coronavirus continued to make headlines. That research examined Internet searches in seventy-five countries and found that “search intensity for ‘prayer’ doubles for every 80,000 new registered cases of COVID-19.”
In March of 2020, the Association discovered that Internet searches for “prayer” reached the highest level in the past five years for which research was available, surpassing all other major events, including Christmas, Easter, and Ramadan.
We’re no doubt still in the middle of the crisis. With all of this on our plates, our natural inclination is to reach out for help. We worry. We wonder. We may even believe that because of all the self-centeredness in our society, which long ago left God in the dust, we had it coming—and big time!
Whatever may be pressing on our hearts, God desires us to reach out to Him. He can more than handle the fears and the questions. In this opportune moment, what God is looking for from us, His most precious creation, is an intimate relationship.
I don’t know about you, but the hunger and the searching occurring right now remind me a lot of what happened after 9-11.
That day and in the weeks thereafter, there was a great surge of interest in matters of faith. Unfortunately, it was short-lived. On September 11, 2002—exactly one year after the terrorist attacks—as part of an online report covering church attendance, Fox News highlighted a very disheartening survey: The emotional pain and search for answers after Sept. 11 had many flocking to religious services like never before. A surge of spirituality occurred as Americans examined just how fragile life was and evaluated what was important. Answers were hard to come by in the months that followed the attacks, and many sought solace in a higher power.
But, like many of the initial post-attack phenomena, church attendance has since returned to normal. “After 9/11 we had 20-some odd thousand people show up,” said Senior Pastor Ed Young. “The largest crowd in the history of Fellowship Church. . .. And when I walked on stage I looked around and said, ‘Where have you guys been? It takes something like this for you to show up to church?’” But the pews were soon roomier. “I was disappointed somewhat that more didn’t stick around. We dropped … to 16 or 17 thousand the next weekend and then the weekend after that to about 14,500,” he said.
By some estimates, on the Sunday following the terror attacks roughly half of the adult population in the United States attended a religious service. But the attendance dropped off starting in November.
The report quoted statistics from the religious-research polling firm Barna that revealed that participation in church-based activities quickly went back to what it was before the attacks. Forty-two percent of Americans polled said they attended services and 84 percent said they prayed before Sept. 11. And now, 43 percent say they attend services and 83 percent say they pray.
Shortly after the doors of my local church were closed due to the pandemic, I was able to follow our Saturday vigil Mass online and was blessed to hear a poignant homily by Fr. Rich Bartoszek. Fr. Rich not only helps out at the weekend Masses at my parish but also serves as a full-time chaplain for one of the major hospital systems in the Archdiocese of Detroit. By the time he celebrated this particular Mass, he had witnessed firsthand the devastation caused by the coronavirus. As Fr. Rich explained, many folks he bumped into in the busy hospital hallways told him they were fearful. They had a lot of “God-related” questions. Some were even convinced, as some were after 9-11, that this is a judgment or some sort of punishment from God.
Fr. Rich told his co-workers the same thing that he told parishioners tuning in that Saturday: the God we serve is not using the pandemic or any other crisis to zap us. He didn’t cause it, but He allows it so we can help reveal Him to the world. For most of us, we have never seen anything like this. But this is not what our God does. I choose to see exactly what Jesus says, “that the works of God might be made visible,” through what is going on in the world right now. He framed his message around the Gospel reading for March were a clear reminder that God is right here with us in the coronavirus trenches. In the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel, we read about Jesus healing the man who was born blind. Upon seeing the blind man, the disciples ask Jesus to tell them who sinned, the man or his parents. Given the beliefs of that time, they were no doubt surprised by the Lord’s response:
Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. (John 9:3)
Do we recognize the works of God in the events of our day, or are we still paralyzed by fear? Although we would never have chosen for ourselves this “Lentiest Lent we’ve ever Lented,” it might at the end of the day wind up being one of the most profound periods of our lives, helping us spiritually to conquer not only coronavirus but a whole lot more.
This article is adapted from a chapter in Teresa Tomeo’s latest book, Conquering Coronavirus: How Faith Can Put Your Fears to Rest. It is available from your favorite bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press.
We also recommend the articles, “Rosary Meditations for Prayer During the COVID-19 Pandemic” and “Praying the Stations of the Cross Amidst COVID-19”.
Also find out about St. Corona in the article “St. Corona, Pray for Us”.