My calendar reads “March 2021” in a way that feels like yet another season of a well-worn television programs. Familiar characters and storylines and more of the same. Sure, this March will have more madness than the last one, and some of us can be proud at accrued mastery for high quarantine arts in Zoom or bespoke hobbies. And yet, here we are, in the midst of a second Lenten fast during this time of social and ecclesial distance. We find ourselves continuing to adjust our masks and to process life during a pandemic. Prayer—forgotten or foregrounded—sits in a chasm between our vaccinated hopes and our variant anxieties. Exhausted and overcommitted, the world seems caught in one long Lent.
This Lent feels just a bit like a desert within another desert. I think part of the issue is the loss of weekly rituals that embody the passing of time. For me, the spiritual livestreams are running a bit dry. But the wisdom of the liturgical calendar resists a logic of productivity that aims to compare this March to last March. Instead, the Church’s cyclical time should invite a different relationship to God’s enduring present. A relationship that returns to search amidst barren wastelands of silence year after year.
Lenten devotion dovetails with the “already, not yet” shifting vaccination timelines and phases of the rollout. Some dawning hope can be seen on the horizon, but we must still keep to disciplines of the fast. Lenten hope might also be the right attitude to reimagine Church life beyond pandemic time. Those with one foot out the door will surely have a much harder time stepping back inside. Sharp downward trends in liturgical attendance, financial support, vocations, and diocesan resources have only accelerated thanks to COVID-19. And throughout this election year, ecclesial politics in the United States have increasingly shown to match the troubling partisanship that drives the noise of public discourse.
Close to a year ago, Pope Francis made history by delivering an extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing during the lockdown. The Pope did not appear at his customary Vatican window to bless crowds in the piazza below. Instead, cameras tracked a solitary pontiff shuffling slowly in the rain. He prayed before a crucifix said to work miracles against plagues past and reflected on how “We are all in the same boat.”
Strikingly, the livestream event included a moment for digital adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. A laptop became an altar; a screen became a monstrance. On the one hand, this was not miraculous. Catholics have lauded the legitimacy of technologically mediated rituals since the onset of television. Like teaching, in-person liturgies are unequivocally better, but virtual participation works in a pinch or a pandemic. A livestream adoration did not call for profound liturgical innovation or theological gymnastics. But on the other hand, inviting the whole city and the whole world to Eucharistic adoration required the courage to risk boredom and to risk misinterpretation in silence.
Silence, after all, can be as ambiguous and confrontational as it can be soothing or peaceful. Silence moves in and of itself. In a 2016 book on silence and noise, Robert Cardinal Sarah wrote, “In the Church’s liturgies, silence cannot be a pause between two rituals; silence itself is fully a ritual, it envelops everything. Silence is the fabric from which all our liturgies must be cut.” Could we extend Cardinal Sarah’s metaphor to see the silences of this long Lent not as hiatus, but as a fabric to reinvigorate liturgical life?
The Church needs courage to lead into what comes next. “Getting back to normal” cannot be the goal; standards of “normalcy” belong to the linear calendar. Mitigating the pandemic so we can gather in person will not magically resolve the Church’s ongoing complicity in systemic racism or convince those betrayed by clericalism to trust the institution again. If anything, the pandemic calls Church leaders to be shepherds of a living tradition like the one that found new expression in the risky and responsive silence of that lockdown blessing.
Pope Francis recently accepted the resignation of the same Cardinal Sarah as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments. Cardinal Sarah’s tenure at the top of the CDW has been riddled with controversy—perhaps most famously in the questions that surround “co-authorship” with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI of a book about priestly celibacy. Cardinal Sarah has become a darling of the reactionary and traditionalist movements in the United States, and the conspiracy theory machine hummed with speculations about hidden meanings in Sarah’s resignation tweet.
In an unusual way, the Holy Father has not yet named Cardinal Sarah’s successor. Whomever it is, Pope Francis’ choice can send a clear signal—to curial offices in the city and bishops conferences around the world—about future ritual priorities. Here is a chance for a new direction. Rather than quibble over translation or banning beloved hymn texts, perhaps all of the faithful need a chance to sit in this silence together. Whatever comes after our long, Lenten time in the desert cannot be a return to the same. Our aim must be renewal.
Charles A. Gillespie is a lecturer in the department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.