Lenten program promotes prayer, supports Cor Unum Meal Center

LAWRENCE -- As Lent begins, one way the faithful can answer the call to prayer and almsgiving is through the One Heart Lent Program, which provides reflections on the daily Gospel readings and encourages donations to Cor Unum Meal Center, a ministry of St. Patrick Parish in Lawrence.

Cor Unum is a restaurant-style facility that provides free, nutritious meals for the hungry every day of the week. For about 15 years, Cor Unum's leadership has published a prayer guide corresponding to the Gospel readings for each day of Lent. The guide comes with a one-page information sheet, which is meant to be cut in half. The bottom half is to be put around a jar, which is to be used to collect alms for Cor Unum.

All of the donations from the One Heart Lent Program go toward feeding people at Cor Unum, according to Father Paul O'Brien, the chairperson of the meal center and pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Lawrence.

Father O'Brien writes the Lenten reflections each year to be used the following year. Some parishes print the reflections in their weekly bulletins. They can also be downloaded from Cor Unum's website.

"There are lots and lots of good daily Lenten prayer guides, so we're happy to be one option that's available to people," Father O'Brien said in a Feb. 21 interview.

He said he thinks the daily Gospel readings for Lent are "the most spiritually focused for a particular season of the liturgical year."

"You can't beat the daily Gospel readings during Lent to get you focused. And they move, they evolve, during the course of the season. They're just wonderful. So, we don't reinvent the wheel in terms of the scriptural content. We enter into what the Church offers us, and it proves to be, year after year, a wonderful resource," Father O'Brien said.

He noted that the One Heart Lent Program can be "a good opportunity" for both individual and communal reflection.

"People can use it within a family, in prayer group, as a married couple, among friends," he said.

The Lenten program grew out of a fundraising project that was instrumental in establishing Cor Unum in the mid-2000s. The Labels Are For Jars campaign sold T-shirts with stereotype-challenging labels like "addict," "minority," "prisoner," or "troubled teen." The shirts were packaged in jars that had slots in their lids, which were then to be filled with money to fund the construction and operation of the meal center. After Cor Unum center opened in 2006, the fundraiser shifted to focus on Lent each year.

At Cor Unum, volunteers serve as greeters, cooks, and waitstaff, welcoming guests to the spacious dining room and providing them with multi-course meals. Guests may eat as much as they want, and can also receive food items to take home. Volunteers can eat with the guests, and guests can become volunteers themselves.

"In blizzards, in tropical storms, during the Lawrence gas disaster in 2018, and during COVID, we have never failed to serve a scheduled meal," Father O'Brien said.

When the pandemic prevented them from serving hot meals, Cor Unum assembled and distributed to-go bags instead. They began the process of returning to an in-person dining experience over the last few months.

Father O'Brien said they now have hundreds of people signing up to volunteer at Cor Unum with "a whole new sense of life," which is "beautiful to witness."

"Our volunteers and our guests are flying high these days because it's such a joy to be back with dining room service, not just to-go meals," he said.

The One Heart Lent Program -- which takes its name from Cor Unum, Latin for "one heart" -- may serve as a way to introduce more people to the meal center's work.

"Lots of folks seem to welcome the opportunity to focus their Lenten almsgiving on the very basic Christian duty to feed people who are hungry, give drink to people who are thirsty, welcome people who are strangers. And that's what we do every day at Cor Unum," Father O'Brien said.

The 2023 One Heart Lent Program materials can be downloaded at corunummealcenter.org/lent-guide-2023.