05Apr Reflection on Lent in the Parish: Bernard Cotter

Season of new growth
Lent acts as an annual call to renewal, and can easily be used as a seven-week period of formation. New ministries can be started and existing ones renewed, while the whole parish becomes refreshed and ready to answer its baptismal call to service

A late Lent is a gift from God, particularly for those who work in parish ministry. When Easter is in mid-April or later, as it is this year, Lent starts when winter has done its worst, and the frosts and snows which inhibit travel and force parish cancellations are far behind.
When Lent occurs late in the Spring, days are longer, with brighter mornings (all the better for early Mass) and the possibility of evening gatherings in the dusk as opposed to the night presents itself. There’s something attractive about leaving home after tea and finding it is still light. All darkness does is to tempt one to stay home, in comfort by the fire.
Lent offers many opportunities to a parish. Some will add extra Masses or prayer events like a Rosary or Stations of the Cross (the latter two can easily be added to a parish’s schedule, with lay organisers and prayer leaders to direct them). Lent is also an opportune time to introduce parishioners to the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, in preparation for Divine Mercy Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter (which in 2011 will also be the day of John Paul II’s beatification, which may give the enterprise an extra incentive). Other parishes might provide a prayer group to help parishioners focus on the Sunday Gospels, while at the same time helping people learn a little about the scriptures and how to pray with them (lectio divina offers a great way of achieving this).
Lent, originally that last intense period of preparation of candidates for baptism at Easter, is easily adapted to become the perfect time for formation in the parish. A parish can use the season according to its needs, finding in the seven-week span three or four evenings over which to prepare people for ministry and deepen their experience of ministry for others. The period leading up to Lent might be a time for a parish core group to assess which ministry might best do with such formation — not excluding the possibility that Lent could be offered as a time for all the baptised to re-immerse themselves in their sacraments of initiation.
Here are some examples of ways in which a parish might use Lent for formation, according to its needs:
Ministers of the Eucharist are often commissioned (or re-commissioned) at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. This ceremony may also take place during the weekend Masses for any Sunday of the Easter season, or right up to the feast of the Body and Blood of the Lord. Lent is an appropriate time to prepare new ministers, or to renew the ministry of those who have been undertaking the ministry for some time.
For all Catholics, Lent acts as an annual a call to renewal, which might provide the extra spur ministers sometimes need to make a commitment to a few nights of formation. As well as teaching about the Eucharist and ministry, this formation will start from the baptismal call to service, a truly Lenten theme.
Lent might also be a time to deepen the formation of a parish’s altar servers. Most parishes have a tradition of practices for the liturgies of the Easter Triduum, so it would not be much of a stretch to host a few evenings in Lent to examine what’s involved in service for all the Sundays of the year, and, more importantly, to help the boys and girls who serve to understand the big picture, which will link their baptism ten and more years ago to their life now.
In a similar vein, it might be possible to invite a parish’s Ministers of the Word to  deepen their formation during the latter half of Lent. They will already be used to having practice sessions in preparation for Palm Sunday and Easter. Bringing these usual gatherings back a couple of weeks might give a parish the chance to helps its ministers understand the baptismal context of their ministry also.
The Lenten call to share bread with the hungry and feed the homeless poor provides a perfect context for the formation of a parish social justice group. Many places already have such groupings, though often without an explicit link to the church community. Members of such bodies may answer a Lenten call to build a church body pursuing gospel values — and the formation of such a group in Christian values may also fit well into the season of Lent. Indeed, their commissioning at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, around the time of the washing of feet, might nicely link such a group with the liturgical life of the parish.
This Lent in the parish of Uibh Laoire, where I serve, is a time of preparation for elections to the Parish Assembly (our parish pastoral council). These elections are scheduled to be held over the May bank holiday weekend, so Lent this year is to be used as a time for reflection on the baptismal call to ministry shared by all parishioners.
Previously, when such elections occurred, much work was done on the formation of the candidates who accepted nomination to the parish’s pastoral body. Unfortunately the rest of the parish was not part of this conversation and often failed to see the pastoral coordination body as anything more than Father’s helpers – or worse Father’s scapegoats when difficult decisions had to be made.
In 2011, the initial formation is being offered to the whole parish, through speakers at the Sunday Masses. This formation will introduce the whole parish to the models of the church, which have been prominent in the Catholic world since Vatican II, models which seem to have rarely been explained to the people of this parish. Starting with a vision of the Church as the people of God, I hope parishioners will come to understand their share in responsibility for the mission of their Church and parish, springing from their baptism.
Uibh Laoire parish is fortunate this year to also have a candidate completing his RCIA journey to Confirmation during this season. His witness will also call parishioners to treasure the sacraments they have already celebrated (or had celebrated for them in their infancy). Any parish who is participating in the RCIA process can use the occasion to make sure parishioners are challenged by it to remember their own initiation and all it means for them.
When all the Lenten formation is over, my hope is that all parishioners will be ready to answer again the baptismal call to service, and that those called to the parish’s various ministries will arrive at the Easter feast with their faith more mature and their readiness to serve refreshed.

Summary: Things to do
Make Lent a time of formation in your parish
Check which ministries most need renewal and organise formation for them
Help all parishioners to re-discover the call to ministry first received at baptism

Bernard Cotter ministers in Uibh Laoire parish, residing in Inchigeela, Macroom, Co Cork, Ireland. Email frbernard@eircom.net. This article was first published in the Parish Practice Page of The Tablet of 19 March 2011. Reproduced here with permission of the Tablet. Website: www.thetablet.co.uk