Solemn season of Lent gets a jolt from Pope's resignation
Lent begins for Catholics around the world today, an otherwise solemn 40 days that have been upended by the unexpected announcement that Pope Benedict XVI will resign at month's end.
Catholics who attend Ash Wednesday services today will be encouraged to tend to their spiritual side these 40 days through prayer, fasting and donations to the poor. Simultaneously, machinations will be underway at Vatican City to select a new pope, and with it a bountiful helping of speculation, politicking and intrigue.
"It's sort of a heightened sense of expectation now," said the Rev. Msgr. Anthony Frontiero, the rector of St. Joseph Cathedral who worked at the Vatican for two years during Benedict's tenure.
Nonetheless, Frontiero plans to avoid mention of the resignation during his Ash Wednesday homily today. He will offer prayers for Benedict and the College of Cardinals, which will choose his successor.
And he thinks the announcement may draw a few more people - including fallen-away Catholics and non-Catholics - to church today. The 12:10 p.m. Ash Wednesday service usually comes close to filling the Cathedral, he said.
"I hope the faithful, in light of this announcement, may reevaluate their desire to participate in the life of the church," he said.
Lent is the 40-day period leading up to Easter.
Many Catholics resolve to forgo luxuries such as sweets or alcohol, and adults are supposed to eat only one major meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (although they can supplement it with two smaller meals), according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
They are also told to not eat meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent. And they should pray more and give alms, or donations to the poor. During Ash Wednesday services today, priests mark the foreheads of worshippers with ashes, a sign of penitence, according to the U.S. bishops.
In Nashua, the Rev. Michael Kerper, the pastor of St. Patrick Church, said he will not mention Benedict during today's homily.
"I don't think he would want priests to do that," Kerper said. "It really doesn't fit with the tone of the service."
St. Patrick Church is located across the street from the Hillsborough County-South Superior Courthouse, and Ash Wednesday can be one of the biggest draws of the year, Kerper said.
He credits Benedict with one of the most visible changes at St. Patrick Church. Five years ago, the previous St. Patrick Church pastor started saying Mass in Latin, after Benedict gave priests the discretion to offer Mass in the ancient church language.
Now, Latin Mass is said at St. Patrick every Saturday morning and once a month on Sunday. This coming Sunday, the noon Mass will be in Latin. Kerper also says the Mass ad orientem, meaning the priest faces the front of the church along with the congregation.
Benedict was long known to be a fan of the ad orientem, Latin Mass. But even then, it took Benedict almost three years into his papacy to make that one modification, Kerper said.
"It takes years for any kind of change to happen (with a new pope)," he said.
Normally, the Vatican slows down during Lent and the pre-Christmas season, said Kevin Donovan, spokesman for the Diocese of Manchester. "It's a period of radio silence," Donovan said.
But this year will be different out of necessity, Frontiero said. The papal throne should not be vacant any longer than necessary, he said.
"I think the objective would be to have a Pope for the holy season of Easter," Frontiero said. "There's no reason not to."