04/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

An Involuntary Lent

In 1956, a few hundred Catholic teachers and catechists gathered at Mt. Carmel High School on Hoover Street in Los Angeles for workshops and teaching on religious education. Today, this gathering is called the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress and brings together 40,000 Catholics from around the world for fellowship, worship, and learning. I had the blessing and the privilege of being this year's keynote speaker for the event.

I opened that morning by reading from a "Lenten Letter" written by Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He had this reflection on both Lent and the current economic crisis:

According to the calendar, Ash Wednesday occurs this week and we begin another Lent. Except for this year. Lent actually began in 2007 for many thousands of families all across the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and we have been in a long and protracted season of Lent ever since. In what sense?

With the economy continuing to spiral downwards day after day, with millions of jobs being eliminated, with people unable to make their house payments thus losing their homes, and with so many fearful of what tomorrow might bring--we have truly been on a long Lenten journey over these past two years. Incredible difficulties have burdened families: parents ever fearful that they cannot provide for their children, the unknown financial calamity that lurks just around the corner, the awful feeling of being one paycheck away from complete financial meltdown.

In prior years when life and our financial security were far more predictable, Lent meant that we could choose which special sacrifices we wanted to undertake--but just for six weeks, until Easter Sunday. And then back to normal. But now we have a new reality: We aren't choosing our sacrifices this year, they have chosen us. And they aren't just for six weeks; they have been our burden for over 75 weeks now with no sign of relief in sight.

All of us now know people whose lives have been touched in some way by this crisis. For some, it has been mere inconveniences, for others here in the United States and across the world, it means hardship and suffering. One of the lessons of Lent is that suffering can be redemptive. But that only happens when we are changed for the better by it. We go through the season of Lent not just to change our actions for a moment but so that our character can be changed for a lifetime.

While I support the president's budget, it does not bring Easter morning to the country. A lot more than government needs to change in the midst of this crisis; voluntary business practices, the function of our local churches, and our personal habits all must change as well.

Those of us who have practiced charity, simplicity, and restraint should be patient and insistent teachers for our friends, neighbors, workplaces, and churches. For those of us who have now discovered these virtues, by choice or not, I pray that we learn these lessons not just for a season, but for a lifetime.

Jim Wallis is the author of The Great Awakening, Editor-in-Chief of Sojourners and blogs at

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