Before the altar of God and among the church’s Eastern Catholic icons, Byzantine pastor Father Michael O’Loughlin embraced each one of his parishioners, asking them for forgiveness. And they asked him the same. “I ask you for forgiveness,” he said.
They granted it to him, and asked for that same forgiveness of every other parishioner present in the cozy church Feb. 10. The ritual of forgiveness was a scene of emotion and sincere apology giving rise to a look of peace on the faces of parishioners of Holy Protection of the Mother of God Byzantine Catholic Church in Denver.
The annual ritual was part of a vespers service that marked the beginning of “Great Lent” for Eastern Catholics, starting Feb. 11.
“We’re going to kick off the 40 days begging for God’s mercy,” Father O’Loughlin told the congregation. “We need to make sure that none of us here hold anything against each other. We do that with every single person so that our hearts are then opened up from any binding that we’ve done to each other so that God will start his work these 40 days and that his work will come to completion.”
The small gathering of faithful sang the psalms and the priest led them through a litany of peace, litany of supplication and hymns.
At several points including the Prayer of St. Ephrem, with Father O’Loughlin, the people prostrated themselves, crouching or lying on the wooden church floor while bowing their heads.
Prostrating is a common practice in Eastern churches during Lent that acts as a symbol and posture of penance.
“We want the body to feel the penance as well as our minds and our spirit,” Father O’Loughlin explained after the service.
“Every part of us is supposed to feel Lent.”
The Eastern Catholic tradition of “Great Lent” began as only one week, Holy Week. The fathers of the early Church then wanted to mirror Christ’s own 40-day fast so 40 days was added to Holy Week, making the beginning of their Lent this year Feb. 11.
Eastern Catholics also make sacrifices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. In the weeks previous to Great Lent, Eastern Catholics purge their homes of dairy and meat products by having weeklong feasts. This prepares them for Lent when they fast from meat and dairy on the first day of Great Lent and Good Friday. Meat is also abstained from on Wednesdays and Fridays.
After vespers, Father O’Loughlin talked to the congregation about purging themselves from sin. The first step in the spiritual life for both Eastern and Western Catholics is to empty themselves of any sin that is keeping them from Christ.
“Sin objectively keeps you from a relationship with Christ,” he said. “We need to make sure there is nothing amongst each other that is getting in the way.”
In discussing the immensity of his role as pastor of souls, Father O’Loughlin turned to his flock and said, “I ask for forgiveness for any way, and real tangible ways, that I’ve hurt any of you.”
The choir sang Easter hymns—because forgiveness is an act of Easter—as families, couples and friends lined up to hug Father O’Loughlin. Then forming a line after him, each parishioner received each other and, with smiles and tears, sought reconciliation.
Some called it a “cleansing of the soul.” Others called it freeing.
First-time participant Diana Kullman, 62, said it drew emotion.
“I feel a cleansing, like I let go,” she said.
Theresa Earlywine, 28, said, “I think it’s a beautiful way to enter into Lent to recognize what you’ve done wrong and how’ve we hurt others and also to let go of any ways others have hurt us.”
Parishioner Elizabeth Zelasko, her husband, Joe, and two children drove from Fort Collins to attend the ritual. She said it helps her realize she is part of the church community.
“To ask for forgiveness helps me realize that we’re all one,” she said. “It’s really beautiful, and it helps me to walk the path we all do.”