By The East Tennessee Catholic
Bishop Richard F. Stika is looking forward to a more normal Lenten season and Easter celebration in 2021, unlike last year when a mysterious coronavirus shut down the world.
With the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17, Catholics across the Diocese of Knoxville will begin their private and public preparations for Easter.
Bishop Stika expects, for the most part, a return to tradition meshed with “new normal” practices that have been in place since last March.
“It’s my hope that after a year of this, with the proper protocols and protections, we will resume all of the traditional Lenten practices. Some might be more limited because of space in our churches. The components, such as almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, are important. Fasting is not contingent on a lot of people. It’s a personal thing. The same with prayer. But we’re still going to have the traditional practices like Stations of the Cross and hopefully fish fries. We’ll have to see. Mass has resumed, and we’ll continue on,” the bishop said.
Churches and parish priests around the diocese have spent nearly a year adjusting to federal, state, local, and Church protocols to protect members from COVID-19 outbreaks.
Bishop Stika expects many of those to remain in place, but Lent will be observed and Easter will be celebrated in churches, unlike last year, when public Masses, including, the public celebration of Easter, were suspended.
The bishop calls that decision to suspend Masses among the hardest of his episcopacy, and one that still weighs on his mind.
But he was determined to reopen Masses to the public, which he did on Pentecost weekend by incorporating social distancing guidelines, sanitizing practices, and specific safety precautions on the distribution of Communion.
Bishop Stika is encouraging parishioners to take part in Lenten observances, with personal devotions like prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, as well as public participation.
“But we have something greater to bring with us in prayer. It’s a conversion of heart, especially after a difficult political season, and just a difficult environment to live in with COVID and all the uncertainty. Maybe in a very special way for Lent we can pray for those who have died from it and all the health-care workers as well as for the success of all the vaccinations and those who choose to be vaccinated,” he said.
Bishop Stika noted one break with tradition that will impact all parishioners as Lent begins.
The diocese will follow COVID-19 safety guidelines for the distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday, as will all dioceses.
Bishop Stika explained that the diocese is following the policy instituted by the Holy See, which calls for one general prayer for everyone and the sprinkling of ashes on the crown of the head instead of rubbing the ashes on the forehead in the form of a cross as is traditionally done.
However, the bishop pointed out that sprinkling ashes on top of the head is the traditional way for clerics, including popes, to receive them.
The special dispensation from attending Mass because of COVID concerns that Bishop Stika granted last spring will remain in place until further notice from the bishop.
But as Mass attendance has risen toward normal numbers in recent months, Bishop Stika is looking forward to seeing Lenten and Easter Masses well attended.
A new survey reveals a correlation between COVID-19 and faith and family ties.
According to a poll by the Pew Research Center, more Americans say the coronavirus pandemic has strengthened their religious faith.
And according to Pew, 48 percent of Catholics surveyed said the pandemic “strengthened bonds with their immediate family members.”
The survey, released Jan. 27, showed that 28 percent of Americans said the pandemic had strengthened their own religious faith. It was conducted June 10-Aug. 3 last year, as people in the affected countries had been under social distancing rules, national lockdown orders, or both.
Among Americans, 45 percent of those who say their faith is very important to them said the COVID crisis had strengthened their faith, compared with 11 percent who held faith less important or unimportant. Overall, 49 percent of Americans said religion is very important in their lives.
Bishop Stika hopes the number of people strengthening their faith continues to grow.
“I would urge people to come to Mass if they are healthy because all of the protocols we’ve put into place are working,” the bishop said. “I really missed Easter Mass last year, the public part. I missed all the public interaction with people.”
As diocesan churches continue social distancing protocols like keeping every other pew empty and offering overflow rooms for Massgoers, some may increase Mass times to accommodate larger Easter congregations.
Also, Bishop Stika emphasized that churches, including the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, will continue broadcasting their Masses for those unable to attend.
“We’ll just adapt and go with the flow. A lot of our churches have been doing that already. And we’ll continue to livestream Masses from the cathedral and the churches,” he said.