For Harford County's Catholic residents, the annual Lenten season is a time to reflect on how they can improve as people.
"It's a much more intense look than just our daily routines," said Father Bill O'Brien, pastor of the Church of St. Patrick in Havre de Grace. "So Lent becomes a time when we look more intensely at what is it we really need to change within our lives to be better people."
Local Catholic churches, and those throughout the Archdiocese of Baltimore, will hold a variety of community events and services during the 40-day Lent observance, which begins with Ash Wednesday and lasts through Good Friday.
For those of the Catholic faith in Harford and the rest of the world, this Lenten season also comes at a time of profound change in church leadership with the announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that he will retire at the end of February. The 85-year-old spiritual leader of Catholics worldwide announced Monday he would be stepping down, the first pope to retire since the Middle Ages. A new Pope is expected to be selected by Easter.
"Strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me," Benedict stated, according to CNN.com, which cited the Vatican.
Monsignor Michael Schleupner, pastor of Saint Margaret Parish in Bel Air, like many others, said he was surprised by Benedict's announcement.
"It's an amazing event, but I respect Pope Benedict for doing that," Schleupner said. "If he feels his health and energies are now to the point where he can no longer lead the church, I have a great deal of respect for him for recognizing that and acting on it."
O'Brien said Benedict was fortunate "in the sense to have done as much as he has done, and to have been in a position of leadership like that and then to be able to take some time off and relax and take care of himself."
He said the next pope will have the responsibility of continuing to lead the Catholic Church through times of great change, and healing. The new pope must also confront the daily violence which afflicts much of the world.
"There's a lot of healing that needs to go on in the world," O'Brien added.
As part of its Lenten observance, St. Patrick's will host viewings of the DVD series "Conversion: Following the Call of Christ," featuring Father Robert Barron from 9:30 to 10:45 a.m. Fridays and 9 to 10:15 a.m. Sundays.
"Conversion is looking at ourselves, and seeing what is sinful about ourselves and trying to turn ourselves to focus much more on God than on our sin," O'Brien explained.
The pastor said conversion is not like converting from one religion to another.
"This is about changing one's life to make it better," he said.
St. Patrick's will also hold services for Stations of the Cross at 3 p.m. on Fridays. Stations of the Cross describes Jesus Christ's final days and hours of life as he was tried, tortured, crucified and then died and rose from the dead three days later.
Churches throughout the Baltimore Archdiocese will also host "The Light is on For You," a time when parishioners can visit their churches and give confession.
St. Patrick's parishioners can visit the church rectory from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Fridays for confession.
"If somebody wants to go to confession they can just ring the doorbell at that time," O'Brien said.
Monsignor James Barker, pastor of Saint Ignatius Church in Hickory, encourages parishioners to take time during Lent to participate in the weekday Mass services, which will be held at 7:30 and 9 a.m. Monday through Friday, and at 8 a.m. Saturday, in addition to the regular Sunday Mass.
Writing in the current church bulletin, he also encouraged parishioners to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or confession, take part in Stations of the Cross at 3:30 and 7 p.m. Fridays, take senior citizens to Mass and many other activities.
"May the upcoming Holy Season be a time of renewal and re-creation for you in terms of your Spiritual Life with Christ." Barker wrote. "I look forward to seeing you this week for Ash Wednesday."
Schleupner, of St. Margaret's, talked about how Lent is also a time of moderate fasting for Catholics.
The church held a Shrove Tuesday dinner on Tuesday. Schleupner called it a "Mardi Gras type of dinner," with dishes such as pancakes, fruits, doughnuts and more.
"You get rid of all the fats and the lards, the things that make nice tasty treats," he said. "You get rid of them because you're going to be doing some fasting for the next 40 days."
Schleupner said Catholics are not typically asked to undertake a strict fast by going an entire day without eating or drinking.
"What Catholicism asks of all Catholics is to limit the amount of your food, so you don't just not eat anything, but what Catholicism generally asks is, your breakfast and lunch would be very modest and would together be less than what you would eat at dinner time," he explained.
Catholics also should not eat between meals during Lent, and abstain from eating meat on Fridays. They are asked, as well, to give up certain foods, drinks or activities they enjoy for several days a week during the Lent season.
"One of the purposes of fasting from food is to get in touch spiritually, to get in touch with, what kind of behavior should I fast from and get away from," Schleupner said.
St. Margaret's will also have morning Mass during the week, at 6:30 and 8:30 a.m. daily, as well as Stations of the Cross on Tuesdays at 6 p.m. and Fridays at 12:15 and 7:30 p.m.
Sacrament of Reconciliation will take place Wednesday evenings in addition to the traditional Saturday afternoon and evening confessions.
Every Friday evening have a Lenten supper will also be held each Friday at 6 p.m. in the parish hall.
"A rather simple Lenten meal, but it's decent," Schleupner said. "It's a family-oriented event, followed by maybe a 20-minute spiritual reflection."