Encountering the ‘Crypts’ of Lent

An opportunity to discover what God desires

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AckermanRetreats and days of recollection are common during Lent, and confirmation retreats are no stranger to the season. In our diocese, there is a Passionist monastery that has long been a favorite destination for the confirmandi from our parish and several others. Looking back, our attendees were usually excited about the retreat because it meant a day off school, no uniforms (for the Catholic school kids) and, regrettably, the approaching end for many of formal Catholic education.

However, there were some unexpected surprises for the retreatants. The monastery featured a crypt, which not only contained the remains of dozens of Passionist priests, but also relics of St. Paul of the Cross. The eighth-graders were seemingly fascinated and enthralled by it, and in our wrap-up discussion it was the highlight of the day for most of them.

“That crypt was cool,” several kids said. Another requested that he be buried down there when he died; he even took a brochure on joining the Passionists. (I guess vocations can come through many motivations — even burial chambers.) “Relics are pretty sweet,” another girl said, “they make saints real.” The best answer though came from a relatively quiet young man. “It was odd and weird down there,” he said, “but God got my attention, and, for a time, I was not thinking about me.”

I believe that he understood the season of Lent and a day of retreat very well. It truly is a period to get out of our own heads and to reflect on what God is doing in our lives. It presents an opportunity to pray about what he is inviting us to consider.

I have long been a fan of the writings of Father Alfred Delp, a German Jesuit priest, martyred in 1945 in the Plötzensee prison during World War II. Although he wrote the following words reflecting on the season of Advent, they apply to the season of Lent: “[It] is a time when we ought to be shaken and brought to realization of ourselves. The necessary condition … is the renunciation of presumptuous attitudes and alluring dreams in which and by means of which we always build ourselves imaginary worlds.” When we are complacent, God often steps in, to draw us to him, and usually this takes an unexpected situation.

When I was the vocation director, I was asked to make a presentation at a Catholic high school. I had prepared my usual talk on vocations; on the need for discernment, prayer, sacraments; and on other aspects that assist in reflecting on vocation. I could have given this talk in my sleep.

However, what transpired was not what I had in mind. As it turns out, there were no high school students when I arrived at the school; it was a day off for them. The day was actually a “come and see” day for middle school students to consider enrolling there for high school.

Since I was a young priest, the campus minister thought that I would be a good fit for the students that day. I was slightly angry, but more nervous since I had nothing prepared for this group. I felt very used and out of my comfort zone. It was indeed an odd and weird situation, and there were moments of terrified prayer, but it forced me to trust in God and embrace the cross in front of me. The day went well; thank God there was a gym and sports equipment. We ended up playing a version of Catholic Double Dare, where I asked kids faith-related questions and they either won points or had to do a physical challenge. It was not my best work ever — far from it — but it reminded me that I am not in control. God (and that campus minister) humbled me, and I was, strangely enough, grateful for the experience, although very glad to return home.

Perhaps all of us become too complacent and married to our routines. The unfamiliar, uncomfortable and unexpected often provide us with consternation. Those are often the moments where we meet God, and when we encounter him in a profound way. Lent will have its share of crypts, unexpected meetings, and even odd and weird moments. I pray that we accept them as encounters with our God who desires to shake us and awaken us to the depths of his love.

FATHER MICHAEL ACKERMAN is the parochial vicar at Resurrection Parish, Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, and chaplain at Seton LaSalle Catholic High School in Pittsburgh.

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