As Lent begins, Irish bishop urges that political leaders be told worship is essential

Celtic Cross on the hill at Cashel Tipperary Ireland Credit Tom Haymes CC BY NC SA 20 12 11 15 Celtic Cross on the hill at Cashel, Tipperary, Ireland. | Tom Haymes (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

The worship of God is 'utterly essential' and political leaders need to be told this, the Bishop of Raphoe wrote Tuesday in a pastoral letter marking the beginning of Lent.

"It has been said by some persons in public service that 'religion is non-essential', that gathering for Mass and other religious services is less important than shopping or physical exercise or many other things. I know that some of you feel that, by cooperating as fully as we are with the government, we are acquiescing in the falsehood that God and his service and our public witness to him are not essential," Bishop Alan McGuckian of Raphoe wrote Feb. 16, the Tuesday after Quinquagesima.

He added that "parish communities all over Ireland took the utmost care to make sure that our churches are as safe as possible, and I am grateful for the dedication of clergy and countless numbers of volunteers who made this happen."

"I want you to know that I long for our churches to be open for Mass and the sacraments as soon as possible. We need to let our political leaders know that God and our worship of Him are central to us; they are utterly essential," Bishop McGuckian said.

The Republic of Ireland imposed Level Five restrictions because of the coronavirus at the end of December 2020. These restrictions will be in place until at least March 5. Religious services may be held only online; places of worship may remain open for private prayer. Only 'essential retail' can open. Religious services are also banned in Level Four.

Bishop McGuckian noted in his pastoral letter that Lent "has to be about a personal choice."

"I invite you to ask yourself: Am I slipping away from a sense of God? Does this long break from the public practice of the faith mean that I or those close to me are getting out of the habit? Will it simply seem not so important going forward? Could you be saying to yourself: 'We got by without it for months on end …maybe it's not that important,'?"

"Use this time of Lent to take stock," he advised. "Where am I on my journey with God? What is God saying to me at this moment? Be certain that he is calling you to turn towards him and come close. He is saying: 'Come back to me with all your heart,' or simply, 'Come to me you who labour and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest.'"

The bishop said that "the most glorious and significant thing about your life is that it is a walk with God. God is the centre of all things. To know God and to love and serve Him in the bits and pieces of your life, is always a possibility no matter how your life seems to be at any moment … Perhaps you feel totally unworthy of God's love and concern; it may make no sense to you but God is desperately keen to be in relationship with you."

"Opening our hearts to God, worship of God is the most worthwhile and important thing that human beings can do. This pandemic experience may have made that very difficult for you. On the other hand it may have opened your heart up to see it afresh," he reflected.

Bishop McGuckian said, "now Lent is upon us; and Lent is not a dreary burden but a marvellous annual, God-given opportunity for a personal and communal shakeup. I invite you wherever you are at … to see Lent as a gentle and generous invitation from God to open your heart to new beginnings, to a new and deeper walk with God in your life."

He advised that "if you don't pray much put some new act of prayer into your day, every day. Do it, whether you feel like it or not. If it is the case that you say an awful lot of prayers already, then what you need to do is to be quiet; spend some time each day in silence and let God speak to your heart. In fact, all of us need to put at least some minutes of quiet into our day when we let God show us what is really going on."

Secondly, the bishop advised making a sacrifice during Lent.

"Discipline yourself in relation to something you like as a sacrifice … The overarching good reason for praying more intensely during Lent and for backing the prayer up with a genuine sacrifice or fast is to beg God to live in our hearts."

The purpose of human life, he said, is "to become like God. Lent is a special time for committing to that process. It is not our work; it is all God's work but it cannot happen without our cooperation."

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