Lent, the spiritual season of prayer and sacrifice, has an extra pull to it this year because once again -- and now for the third time -- it will be under the cloud of the coronavirus pandemic.
And even though the third Lent in a pandemic can feel like a lot like a Jesus' third fall on the road to Calvary, people who spoke with Catholic News Service focused more on the season's path to Easter and how this year's Lent also coincides with an optimism around COVID-19 cases dropping in the U.S.
"It's a perfect storm: lower (coronavirus) numbers just as Lent approaches," said Mary DeTurris Poust, former communications director for the Diocese of Albany, New York.
Poust, who teaches yoga, leads retreats and writes a blog called "Not Strictly Spiritual," said that during recent virtual retreats she has led, it's obvious how much people want to reconnect in person.
And maybe this Lent, which starts on Ash Wednesday, March 2, is the time to do just that, she said about being with the parish community: gathering for Mass, prayer services and also for the returning soup suppers and fish fries.
After the tremendous losses of the past two years, she said, this Lent could be a good time for a reset. "Lent is the perfect opportunity to recalculate the internal GPS" of where we're going, Poust said, speaking about individuals but also more broadly about what parishes can do as they look to welcome people back.
So many Catholics like the ritual of Lent and all of its "bells and smells," she said, which makes this season a great opportunity "to pull them back in the best way."
Jen Sawyer, editor-in-chief of Busted Halo, a Paulist website and satellite radio program, said in times of uncertainty, people "rely on muscle memory" of traditional faith practices they are used to. But this year, she thinks Lent's usual traditions might have a different feel.
"It seems like this is the Lent we're most prepared for; we've all sacrificed so much" she said. The desert experience of Lent has already been lived out and with so many people exhausted from the past two years, she said this Lent offers new opportunities to find peace, community and faith.
Paulist Father Larry Rice, campus chaplain for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, agreed, saying the church is more than ready for Lent 2022 and he hopes it will help people "respond to all the trauma we have been through."
"We are living with long-term, low-grade trauma, " he said, adding that for many, the pain is just under the surface and he sees Lent as the antidote. "As Christian people, we believe our destination is not Good Friday. We go through that to get to Easter," he said.
He also said this year has the added hope that "by the time we get to Easter, the pandemic we're experiencing will look different." And with wisdom acquired in the past two years, he also added: "There are no guarantees; there could be new (coronavirus) variants."
The past two Lents did not have that same thread of hope.
Lent 2020 started off without a hitch with just a small number of COVID-19 cases in the country but by the second week of Lent, in early March, some dioceses urged parishes to curtail handshaking at the sign of peace and Communion from the chalice. By the third week of Lent, many dioceses lifted Sunday Mass obligations and stopped public Masses and Lenten services such as Stations of the Cross, prayer services and fish fries.
Last year during Lent, more churches were open -- although many were limiting congregation sizes and requiring parishioners to sign up for Masses. Fish fries were back, as carry-out events, and in many dioceses, ashes were sprinkled over heads on Ash Wednesday.
This year, parishes are open -- with differing mask regulations and social distancing in place -- and the beloved fish fries are back with both in-person or carry-out options.
"These past two years for all of us have not been easy, but God has been with us," said Mercy Sister Carolyn McWatters, a liturgist and chair of the Prayer and Ritual Committee for the Sisters of Mercy.
Sister McWatters, who lives at the Sacred Heart Convent in Belmont, North Carolina, and is involved in ministry there with the order's retired sisters, emphasized the need to reflect on the pandemic experience this Lent. She said it's important to recognize how we lived beyond what we could control, the inner resources we relied on and where we saw goodness and grace at work.
"The cross is never a dead end. It points to new life. Where are the signs of life for me, my community, the country, the world?" she asked.
Spiritual growth is often about relinquishing control, she said, which was certainly an aspect to pandemic life but the coronavirus also involved the hardship of isolation which was especially experienced by the retired sisters.
The convent, part of a national center for the Mercy sisters, had been a frequent spot for meetings and gatherings and many came for Sunday Masses and dinners, which was all put on hold for the past two years.
"Everybody is looking for the end," she said.
The view of these retired Mercy sisters echoes what many are feeling, but Sister McWatters also cautions against people focusing on being victims right now and seeing the pandemic purely as "woe is me."
Similarly, she said, Lent is not gloom and doom but should be a "joyful embrace of what will help me to grow more deeply."
Sawyer also stressed that faith is meant to be joyful and said that Busted Halo with its "Fast Pray Give Lent Calendar" and InstaLent photo challenge aims to get that across and will continue that this Lent particularly by urging people to try something new -- a new book or prayer -- and to check in with others after so much pandemic isolation.
"We don't often think of Lent as a vibrant time of community connection," she said, adding that Catholics are "used to the desert" experience often associated with the season. But this Lent, that might change.