It's Ash Wednesday and churches are fuller than usual. The line of people processing to receive ashes in the sign of the cross on their foreheads is diverse; there are mothers and babies, office workers on their lunch break, elderly, parishioners, and their neighbors. Here in the Archdiocese of Boston, one may find priests in the city center or at public transportation stops available to distribute the sacramental. All come forward for ashes for the same reason: to mark the beginning of Lent with a sign of faith, promising in their hearts to pray, fast, and give alms. These are the Three Pillars of Lent.
When seen through the lens of the missions, these three pillars take on an urgent identity, one that calls us to develop habits that take us beyond just Lent.
I know, we've just started Lent and I'm already talking about beyond? Hear me out.
When we pray, we talk with God. It's a relationship of both speaking and listening. We give Him sadness, hurt feelings, concerns, and sorrows. My mother used to tell me that God has "big shoulders" and can handle all of it! We offer God our joys, triumphs, and successes in thanksgiving for graces and favors received. Another "Mom-ism": Make sure you say 'thank you' as much as you ask! Then (the hardest part for me), be still and listen. I often picture the Almighty hearing all the prayers that ask, tell, and direct. Just as He is about to open His mouth with the answers, He sees we've already walked away, satisfied that He now knows exactly what we need or want ... because we've told Him!
The ministry of service in the missions has taught me that my prayers must also be other centered. There is certainly an endless list that comes through our office. A bishop in Ethiopia writes asking for prayers to end the drought that has stunted his people's crops. Sisters in the Philippines hope that their prayers will be answered in the form of clean water for the orphanage they run. A lay missioner in Ecuador tells us of the gang violence that has forced his organization's volunteers to temporarily retreat from the neighborhood where they minister.
Our benefactors include their own prayer intentions with their gifts to the missions.
These situations have opened my eyes, my heart, and my prayer life to a world far beyond our borders. I also know that far beyond Lent, they will still need my prayers. Join me -- make the first of the Three pillars of Lent focus on the missions.
Then, go beyond Easter and pray for the missions.
- Maureen Crowley Heil is Director of Programs and Development for the Pontifical Mission Societies, Boston.
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