As we moved through the second half of Lent, I kept returning to something I saw on Twitter: “Lent is a season for the brokenhearted.”
The person posting didn’t elaborate, so I was left to ponder these words in my own heart. Certainly, there were many broken hearts at the first Good Friday. It’s hard to imagine the disappointment for those who believed Jesus was “the one who is to come.”
It’s worse to contemplate the horror and grief of those who loved Jesus most intimately and witnessed this good man suffer such a brutal and humiliating death. Holy Saturday must have been the loneliest of days.
But perhaps those words carry a more hopeful meaning. Bring your broken heart to Lent, they suggest, because here all those tears will ultimately be wiped away.
I think that’s why I begin each Lent with an Easter reading. I start the season of repentance either with Mary in the garden or with the apostles at the seashore where the risen Christ casually grills fish and invites them to share breakfast.
I begin this brokenhearted season with hope.
During the annual novena to St. Francis Xavier, a March event celebrated in Jesuit parishes all over the world, our parish focused the event on prophetic voices of the Church. These were contemporary voices who worked in the struggle for human and civil rights within society, and, importantly, within our Church.
Sister Thea Bowman was one such figure. The first (and only) African American member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, Sister Thea was born in Mississippi in 1937. Her family suffered the weight of Jim Crow. Sister Thea was the granddaughter of slaves, her father a doctor who came to the small town of Yazoo to serve the Black population, who couldn’t visit white doctors or be treated in whites-only hospitals.
When the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration arrived to run a school for Black children, Sister Thea’s Methodist parents enrolled her, and by the time she was 9 years old, she entered the Catholic Church.
Her parents allowed that but later were concerned when their only child wanted to head to Wisconsin to join the religious order. It was far away, and they knew life in the North was also full of racial animus. Indeed, Sister Thea wrote them that it was chilly up North, and “more than just the weather.”
Sister Thea Bowman was remarkably beautiful, and her radiant smile exuded joy. She was gifted both intellectually — eventually earning a doctorate — and musically. She was dedicated to civil rights, especially in the Church.
When she returned to minister in her native Mississippi, laws prohibited Blacks and whites from living together. Her bishop had to negotiate a compromise, which added a room on the back of the convent to house her. There were still Catholic churches where Blacks had to stand in the back and receive the Eucharist after everyone else.
In 1984, Bowman was diagnosed with breast cancer, which claimed her life in 1990 at the age of 52.
“I want to live fully until I die,” she proclaimed.
Sister Thea’s cause for canonization has been approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In the reading for the fifth Sunday of Lent, Christ speaks of the grain of wheat that must die before it bears fruit. This reading reminds those who have experienced a broken heart during the pandemic and during the racial tensions of the past year that hope prevails.
Why are saints so joyful? If you are feeling brokenhearted during this difficult time, find someone who can journey with you and teach you joy. Sister Thea Bowman is a good choice.
Caldarola is a columnist for Catholic News Service.