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Spiritual boot camp, retreats, emails keep faithful engaged halfway through Lent

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The men’s Lenten group at St. Rita Church in Alexandria doesn’t have an official name, but the two dozen guys taking part this year could well be dubbed the Spiritual Warriors.

Their boot camp-like approach to Lent involves prayers and spiritual readings, but also ascetic practices such as daily cold showers and group hikes with rucksacks full of weights.

 “Men don’t want to just sit around the room and talk about our feelings,” said Brian Worth, who co-organized the group with fellow parishioner Jeff Cuiper. “A lot of guys respond to a challenge,” Cuiper added.

A few weeks into Lent, the St. Rita program is just one of a range of offerings across the diocese aimed at helping parishioners stay spiritually focused. Some parishes are holding evening prayer services and Lenten retreats, others are sending out reflections and Lenten challenges in daily email blasts. The diocesan Office of Marriage, Family and Respect Life is offering 40 days of reflections and Lenten practices based on Pope Francis’ writings on families.


The St. Rita group, with its focus on prayer, asceticism and fraternity, is based loosely on the popular Exodus 90 program of spiritual exercises for men that has spread widely among Catholic men’s groups over the past five years. The 90-day program was conceived by a priest at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., to help seminarians focus on God and break deeply ingrained attachments to distractions such as social media.

Worth and Cuiper found Exodus 90 inspiring and aimed to make some of the program’s concepts a little more accessible to men in their parish seeking a new level of spiritual growth this Lent, with the support of a band of brothers.

They like to quote the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”

“We wanted to encourage people to take that small step, but make it something doable,” said Cuiper, a retired federal contractor.

He chose passages for daily reading and reflection from “Searching for and Maintaining Peace,” by Father Jacques Phillippe. The group also is using the Lenten devotional “Memento Mori” (Remember Your Death) by Pauline Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, whose books and social media posts aim to help people reflect on their own mortality in order to grow closer to God.

Men in the St. Rita group were asked to choose five Lenten ascetic practices (from an a la carte menu of nine) ranging from daily showers no warmer than room temperature to physical exercise and getting on a regular sleep schedule. Others include abstaining from alcohol, sweets, social media or electronic entertainment. “We’re taking a step back from the comforts of this world and saying, ‘It’s OK that I don’t have a beer tonight, or a hot shower,’ ” said Worth, a lobbyist on Capitol Hill. “That doesn’t determine who we are.”

The group meets Friday mornings for Mass and breakfast and Wednesday nights for the “ruck marches,” an hour walk during which some carry rucksacks holding 40-pound weights to challenge themselves. They text throughout the week for accountability, prayer requests and general support.

“Not everyone comes out to the ruck stuff, but some really appreciate the chance to brute it out with the other guys,” Cuiper said. “We need community and commiserating, but it also keeps people on task.”

Many of the men in the group also are involved in other parish groups, such as the Knights of Columbus, and the bonding also “brings the guys together and strengthens the parish,” Cuiper said.


Every Monday during Lent, the community of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Vienna has been gathering for evening prayer and a mini-retreat — either in person or via livestream. Deirdre Carolan Doerflinger makes a point of going in person.

“It’s very, very wonderful — just a quiet, peaceful atmosphere and I love the music,” said the nurse practitioner, who’s been a parishioner since 1997. “I’m usually tearing out of the house to get there, and when you’ve just stopped working, you’ve got to calm yourself. It’s very easy to do that in evening prayer,” she said.

Director of Liturgy Gerard Hall started the Lenten retreat nights three years ago, with the help of Oblate Father Matt Hillyard, pastor. “It was one of the things that kept our community connected last year,” at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Irene Zaso, director of communications.

The retreats are an extension of the parish’s monthly celebration of evening prayer; they include lots of sung prayer, as well as a reflection from a priest or parishioner on various aspects of the spiritual life. The themes this year all begin with “re” said Father Hillyard: “repenting for times when we are less than we are called to be, removing unhealthy practices, redoubling our efforts or recommitting to loving those whose lives we share.” 

“My Lent last year was very anxiety-filled and frenetic, there were so many unknowns,” said parishioner Rose Castelli, one of the retreat cantors. “This year is more contemplative and reflective.”


St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg this year offered parishioners “Seven Ways to Love Lent,” said Elena Doyle, director of outreach for the huge parish, which has 18,000 parishioners and five priests.

The seven ways include “Wednesday Nights with Jesus and St. Joseph,” a Lenten series of talks by priests on the saint’s spiritual qualities for the Year of St. Joseph. “We wanted to spend some time and blow it up a little, to make something really special on Wednesday nights,” Doyle said. The parish also offers Wednesday adoration, confession and rosary prayer. Other Lenten opportunities include Stations of the Cross on Fridays, daily Mass and daily livestreamed rosary prayer.

St. Mary also has digital options. Parishioners can sign up for daily Lenten reflections from Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire ministry, which the parish distributes through the Flocknote messaging program used by many churches to send customized texts and emails to parishioners. The parish also has a daily Lenten Challenge. One example: “Drink nothing but water today. Each time you crave your usual caffeine kick, offer it up as a prayer for someone in need.” Another: “Abstain from social media. Spend the time in prayer, or face-to-face with your family or friends.”

Parishioner Mary Jo Medosch said she especially values Bishop Barron’s Lenten reflections. “They came at a perfect time, when many Lenten activities had to be canceled because of COVID. In the first week’s reflection, he said to pray while in your car. This is the best time for me when I am alone while driving. This is a practice I have been doing.”

‘40 DAYS, 40 WAYS’ 

After a year at home together dealing with the stresses of the pandemic, families may feel the need for a Lenten reset. The diocesan Office of Marriage, Family and Respect Life offers just that with “40 Days, 40 Ways: Daily Lenten reflections to transform your family.”

The program is especially timely in light of the recent news that Pope Francis has dedicated 2021 as the year of the “Amoris Laetitia Family,” marking the fifth anniversary of “Amoris Laetitia” (The Joy of Love), his 2016 apostolic exhortation on the pastoral care of families.

Thérèse Bermpohl, the office’s director, calls the program “a pathway to charity in the family” that aims to help parents and children “become more loving toward each other, letting go of jealousies, past hurts and callous behaviors.”

She said the office offered 40 Days in 2018, and the response was “tremendous,” so after the pope’s announcement, “I thought it was the perfect time to bring it back.” More than 2,700 people have signed up for the free emails so far this year.

Find out more

Sign up for the emails and view previous reflections at arlingtondiocese.org/40days40ways.




© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021