A recent Catholic News Service article asked: “After 11 months of ‘giving up,’ what is left to give up this Lent?

Mass-going Catholics across the Diocese of Phoenix appear to have answered that question not by subtraction, but by adding activities to deepen their faith.

Interviews with nearly a dozen individuals, including laity and church staff, between the third and fourth Sundays of Lent, found members of the faithful pursuing activities to grow in their understanding and love of God while some sought to curtail distraction, mainly through less time online – a challenge in itself given the sheltered nature of life in the COVID-19 world.

This year, I just felt like – there wasn’t really much to give up, so I think it was more of adding something to (deepen) my faith.

“This year, I just felt like – there wasn’t really much to give up, so I think it was more of adding something to (deepen) my faith. I really felt like this Lent was a year to focus more on prayer, on my faith and its origins,” said Richard Russo of Phoenix who lectors regularly at St. Patrick Parish in Scottsdale.

“I’ve given more time to prayer because I have all this time. I always spent time with Him, but I’m spending more time now,” said Pat Rentmeester of Glendale, a parishioner at St. Thomas More.

Lent, the holy season on the Catholic liturgical calendar that begins in mid-February on Ash Wednesday and lasts through the final night before Easter Sunday, historically has been characterized as a time when Catholics give up anything from chocolate to one’s favorite TV show. The greater purpose is personal self-reflection and atonement, which is meant to draw one closer to Our Lord while preparing one’s heart to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, whose Crucifixion and suffering paid for our sins and opened access to eternal life in God’s kingdom. However, with so many health-related restrictions in place for the past 12 months, it has been suggested there are few things left to give up.

“We’ve been in Lent for a year in a real way, but it has not been a Lent we have chosen,” said Dcn. Doug Bogart, associate director of education and formation for the Diocese of Phoenix’s Office of the Diaconate.

“The discipline of giving things up is a good thing. It helps us to be a little more aesthetic and avoid things that would draw us away from our primary goal, which is fellowship with our Lord Jesus Christ,” Bogart added.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, in a recent video, reminds Catholics, “the Church asks us to commit to prayer, penance and almsgiving. All three require little efforts but significant ones.”

A sampling in the Diocese of Phoenix indicates a number of Catholics are using Lent to engage more in their faith. Catholic literature and a Bible seen March 17, 2021. (Jeff Grant/CATHOLIC SUN)

Some Catholics are using other faith-building pursuits as well.

In addition to morning and evening prayer, Russo said he has been reading a chapter daily from the Acts of the Apostles and reciting the Liturgy of the Hours, the daily prayer of the Church.

Rentmeester has been reading a book through Dynamic Catholic and viewing Catholic videos.

Jill Bagshaw, assistant coordinator of music, liturgy & young adult ministry at St. Patrick Parish outside the church March 14, 2021. (Jeff Grant/CATHOLIC SUN)

Jill Bagshaw, assistant coordinator of Music, Liturgy & Young Adult Ministry at St. Patrick, has been listening to the podcast ministry, “The Bible in a Year,” with Fr. Mike Schmitz, director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of Duluth, Minn.
Churches are turning to other activities and getting creative, too.

“We have developed a podcast version of Stations of the Cross, we have had a drive-thru fish fry,” said Bagshaw. “We’ve been doing it every Friday. We get about 500 people coming through the parking lot, and all the money being raised goes to Catholic Charities counseling programs.”

Use of online resources comes with words of caution.

“The Internet has tremendous power for good and evil. Like your television, library, your car – it can take you to a good place or one that is pretty messed up,” said David Lins, director of Faith Formation at Our Lady of Joy in Carefree.

That is why some simply try to avoid over-use.

Elizabeth McFall, 19, who attends community college and is a parishioner with her family at St. Thomas More in Glendale, recalled how she was online often in 2020. She is spending less time on social media. Giving it up for Lent was an easy decision.

“Because I am at home so much more, I have more time to scroll. I felt my time should be redirected to something more productive and toward God. I focused on that and spending more prayer time,” she explained as her mother listened nearby, smiling.

Social media use seen in the greater Phoenix area March 17, 2021. (Jeff Grant/CATHOLIC SUN)

The change has made a positive impact, not only spiritually but mentally, Elizabeth added.

“I think it has helped emotionally re-center me. When you spend too much time on social media, you become so absorbed in self-image, you overthink, it can give you anxiety.”

Others, including Bagshaw’s oldest son, an 18-year-old high school senior, have taken specific steps to limit use. “He will ask me to assign a passcode to his phone, so things will shut down at a certain time,” she explained.

Still others have been seeking to limit online news consumption to avoid information overload or, as St. Thomas More parishioner Rebecca Coons put it, “the negativity” that sometimes comes with coverage. “I am trying to be more positive and Godly,” she said.
Parish ministry leaders were quick to point out the benefits of the Internet when used in the right way and for faith purposes.

“We go online to Google Meet to discuss Bible study we have watched,” said Lins. “We have still been able to meet, and we have actually grown in friendship. It would have been very unhealthy if it weren’t for the Internet and ability to connect. But you have to do it with a lot of caution. The challenge is to be more careful with what we allow into our homes and into our hearts,” he continued, echoing a theme of Pope Francis in his Ash Wednesday Mass homily.

“Lent is not just about the little sacrifices we make, but about discerning where our hearts are directed; toward God or toward myself?” the pope said.

We all have given up a lot during the pandemic, and as Catholics, I think, we are familiar with sacrifice and its redeeming quality.

“We all have given up a lot during the pandemic, and as Catholics, I think, we are familiar with sacrifice and its redeeming quality. As we look forward to the Paschal Triduum and Easter, I think we are all focused on hope — the hope of the Resurrection, post-pandemic times and what we know is still to come,” Bagshaw observed.

“Lent’s a great season,” said Bogart. “It helps us as ‘regular six-pack, in-the-pew Catholics.’ It gives us a chance to connect with the cause and dimension of the Church calendar and the real preparation time of entering into the joy of Easter. The best way to approach it is as a chance to draw closer and deeper to our Lord Jesus and the beauty of resurrected life in the Kingdom.”