Last year, the liturgical season of Lent was marked by an abrupt coronavirus-induced shutdown that forced parish life to go almost completely virtual in a matter of days.
This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic shows signs of starting to wane and churches reopen in steps, parishes across the Archdiocese of Los Angeles are turning to a combination of in-person and virtual events to prepare Catholics for Easter.
It’s an approach that, after a full year of pandemic, still keeps parish priests like Father Juan Ochoa on their toes.
“It has always been dealing with the unexpected, that’s something that I have really learned,” said Father Ochoa, administrator of Christ the King Church in Hancock Park. “I have always had to be dealing with changing things at the last minute.”
Like most parishes, Christ the King has had to carefully weigh which activities are worth doing in person versus online. Their parish mission and weekly Stations of the Cross have been online, while confessions and adoration have been available at the church.
The parish has set a theme for this year’s Lent: “Time for God, Time for Others.” Father Ochoa said he hopes his parishioners will make the most of being at home by growing their relationship with God through prayer, “to live a contemplative life at home.”
“To be locked inside is also an opportunity to go to our inner room. As Jesus says in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday, ‘Go to the inner room and seek your Father in private,’ ’’ said Father Ochoa.
After a year of isolation and social distancing, the parish is encouraging parishioners to not just improve their relationship with God but with others.
“There are two practical things that we’re asking people to do to be a person for others during Lent,” explained Father Ochoa. “One is to reach out to a family member or a friend that you haven’t talked to for a long time, because we know that this pandemic is also affecting people emotionally, that people feel lonely, people feel isolated,” said Father Ochoa.
The parish is also inviting the faithful to sign up for a new outreach program to help elderly parishioners who aren’t familiar with using computers to schedule their vaccine appointments.
While Christ the King is reaching out to the elderly in a special way, St. Pancratius in Lakewood has another demographic in mind: families. The parish is giving out take-home Lenten reflection kits with prayers and activities to every family that wants one, hoping that families can feel connected to God even from their homes.
The Lenten reflection kits are from the Orange County-based Faith and Family Collective, which offers resources for Catholic schools, families, and parishes.
Each kit contains nine cards, and the cards can be put together to form a picture of the various events in Jesus’ life. Every card also contains a teaching, a Bible verse, a fun activity and a prayer.
St. Pancratius has been supplementing the kits by posting discussion questions for families on their social media.
“We really like it because it’s simple; it gives the teaching, but also it’s teaching the families prayer together,” said Teresa Duran, St. Pancratius’ director of Family Ministries.
The parish has already been experimenting with take-home resources for their Faith Formation students this year. “We kept hearing that the kids are tired of being online, parents are stressed out, so we sat down and we were thinking, how can we proceed faithfully with faith formation but keeping it simple yet fruitful?” said Duran.
According to Duran, the feedback has been positive on the take-home Faith Formation resources.
“[Parents] have been sending photos of their family sitting down working on these things and it’s so beautiful. They’re like, ‘We’ve never sat down as a family and discussed this or had these conversations.’ And so it’s really moving them to discuss the faith more, which has really made our hearts soar,” she said.
“The old style has been, drop off your kid for religious ed, but we need to equip the parents to teach the faith. We’ve always said that they’re the primary catechists of the faith, but we’ve never really equipped them. So that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Duran.
To minister to its families, St. Mel Church in Woodland Hills is sticking to a parish tradition that has taken on a special significance during the pandemic: blessing the homes of as many parishioners as it can during Lent. The goal is to help families reimagine the home — where so many have been limited to in the last year — as a sacred space.
Director of Evangelization Monica Matthews, who is organizing the St. Mel home blessings, recently had her own home blessed.
“Any time there’s an opportunity for our family to pray together, it’s an opportunity for us to grow closer and to be reminded that God is with us,” she said.
Matthews believes that having priests come to people’s homes is a strong sign to make them feel closer to God and the Church, especially for those who aren’t regular churchgoers.
“People are hurting ... [the priests] have been able to step into that to wherever they are,” said Matthews.
“It definitely builds that bridge that church is beyond just the building. Church goes out into the community, that’s what church is all about.”
St. Mel also has an ongoing video series called “St. Mel Moments,” where pastor Father Steve Davoren gives a short spiritual reflection, and is holding Stations of the Cross on Fridays both in person and online.
St. Mel’s Communications Director Patrick Bobillo said that virtual events have yielded positive results: “We actually connected with people in ways that we may have been missing them before,” he said.
Still, the inability to gather in person with the same ease as before the pandemic is a hardship that’s hard to ignore. Father Parker Sandoval, vice chancellor for Ministerial Services for the archdiocese, says even that suffering is an opportunity to grow closer to God this Lent.
“In some ways, this [past year] has been an extended Lent for us ... we have given many things up, we’ve given up our normal way of life. I think in a sense we have been undergoing a collective, long-term penance,” said Father Sandoval.
Father Sandoval suggested that faithful view outward practices like wearing a mask and social distancing not just as inconveniences, but as opportunities for inner sanctification.
“I think it’s important for us Catholics to ... perhaps give these things up with the intentionality of offering sacrifices for the Lord on behalf of our neighbors,” he said.