Pastoral Letter for Lent 2022
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Three weeks ago, on 12 February, the government cancelled Covid restrictions and we were promised a return to ‘normality’. Ten days ago, on 24 February, Russia invaded the Ukraine. The word ‘war’, a word we in Norway have thought belonged to the past, now describes realities that are close to home. Russia is our neighbour. We have strong historical bonds with the Ukraine. Europe finds itself vulnerable in many ways: militarily, economically, culturally, sanitarily.
So what about the ‘normality’ we sigh for? We must accept that it is an illusion. For too long we have lived as if prosperity, peace, and good order were necessary consequences of an irresistible evolution. This is not the case. We are fragile beings living in a fragile world, a world in need of salvation.
As Christians, we are well equipped to live with fragility. We live in the confidence that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. At the beginning of Lent, we let our heads be marked with ashes as a sign that we are dust and shall return to dust. This is the truth of what we are of ourselves. By grace we are a great deal more! God, who created us in his image, has clothed himself with our nature. He has assumed our dust and made it capable of being filled with life eternal.
Let us focus this Lent, not primarily on what we are, but on what we are called to become. To be a Christian is to look ahead. Naturally, we are conditioned by our personal history: by our childhood, by experiences we have had and pain we have endured, by the love we have received and the love we have not found. However, we are not determined by our past. God’s declared purpose is to make all things new (Ap 21:5). He is almighty in his creativity, not just in a generic fashion, but in the lives of each one of us. What matters is to give him access to our lives — and to let him act freely.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has asked us to reflect together on how God’s work of renewal manifests itself in the Church. Our Bishops’ Conference introduced the Synodal Year with a pastoral letter on 1 October. If you have forgotten what was written in it, do read it again!
I am sorry we have not got started sooner with concrete responses. Let us now use Lent to connect with the synodal process. What is it about? The pope insists that it is not a survey! What matters is not to produce endless documents but to discern God’s call in our particular circumstances — our families, parishes and monasteries, and in the Prelature as a whole — in order to answer that call wholeheartedly, as disciples. We are invited to ‘deepen our faith, strengthen our hope, make our love effective’.
There is no set recipe for engagement with the synodal process. That can make it a challenging to embrace it, not least here in this part of Norway, where the Church is made up of Catholics from many nations speaking many different languages, spread over a vast territory. Let us set out from these challenges. I would like to ask a couple of concrete questions I invite you to reflect upon and discuss:
1. How can we avoid that our Catholic community splits into national groups, in which we stick to the company of those who share our language, culture, and sensibility? As food for thought I invite you to read chapter 1 of the First Letter to the Corinthians. The Church is one! Unity is our mission. It is our shared task, through the Church, to lay the foundation for a new humanity. This is what the Second Vatican Council teaches us in its Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium, 9). In other words: How can we strengthen community? How can we find ways of gathering for a shared life and liturgy while making provision for teaching and catechesis in specific languages when this is really necessary?
2. How can we vitalise our Catholic communion? I think especially of those outlying areas in which there are no regular Masses. As food for thought, I invite you to read chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles. It shows how the power of the risen Jesus through the Holy Spirit is expressed in the relationship among believers: they ‘had all things in common’. How can we make this experience our own. Let each one ask: What can I contribute and do for others? Reflect together: in what ways can we meet to build up the Church even when there is no celebration of the Eucharist? Why not gather for Lauds or Vespers, for the rosary, or for Bible study? The sacrament of the altar communicates Christ in a wonderful way. But do not forget his promise: ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in their midst’ (Mt 18:20). Then: ‘Whatever you do to the least of these my brethren, you do to me’ (cf. Mt 25:40). Remember that the Church is sacramental in its nature. A special challenge: How can we help children and young people encounter Jesus Christ through our Christian testimony? How can we assist, encourage, and support young families?
I invite all priests and parish councils to consider how these questions can best be worked through in the different parishes. I refer your attention to the other points raised in the bishops’ letter from this autumn and to the ones you can find on the Synod’s website. During Eastertide I will visit all the parishes. That will give us a chance to share our thoughts, deliberations, and hopes. I myself regularly post reflections on my website: <www.coramfratribus.com>. Brothers and sisters, we live in a time marked by division, fear, and aggression. Let us show by our way of constructing our lives together that we are Christians and that we know another way, indeed, that we know him who is the Way, who gave his life that we might have fullness of life. I wish all of you a blessed and graced season of Lent, in Christ’s name.
+fr Erik Varden ocso
Bishop of Trondheim
Detail from the baptismal font in Nidarsodomen, carved by Gustav Vigeland. Noah’s ark remains a symbol of the Church. It sails through a fearful storm, but above it hovers the Spirit, Bringer of life and ordered peace.