By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
It’s that time of year again: break out those brackets, pick your favorites and get ready to compete for serious bragging rights. College basketball? No, a tournament in which stakes are not as temporal as those of the NCAA, but instead reach all the way to heaven: Lent Madness.
For the fifth consecutive year, fans of saints are lining up to make sure March excitement is not confined to athletics. They pick winners among 32 holy heroes and heroines, who battle it out for the coveted Golden Halo in an online tournament billed as “so fun you won’t know it’s edifying.”
While hoop fans revel, “Why should we as Christians be sitting around giving up chocolate and eating twigs all day?” said the Rev. Tim Schenck, creator of Lent Madness. By day, he’s rector of Church of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts. By night, he’s a self-described “huge sports fan” who loves saints even more.
“This is trying to reimagine Lent,” Schenck said. “It’s all not all doom and gloom, breast-beating and hair shirt-wearing. What could be more joyful than a season specifically set aside to grow our faith and draw closer to Jesus?”
That spirit comes through every weekday during Lent, Schenck said, as two saints square off at lentmadness.org. After downloading free brackets, visitors vote for favorites once a day and share their reasons in congenial comment sections. Each day, one saint is eliminated and another advances, first to the Saintly Sixteen and later to the Elate Eight.
Only one will take home the Golden Halo. Last year, Cinderella saint Frances Perkins, who served as Labor Secretary in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration, took the Halo in a huge upset over Luke the Evangelist.
After humble beginnings on Schenck’s Clergy Family Confidential weblog, the tourney has grown into a full-blown ministry. Forward Movement, publisher of Forward Day by Day, spends a few thousand dollars to underwrite graphic design, web hosting, and merchandise.
“The magic of Lent Madness is that people start it thinking it’s a ridiculous take on Lent, voting for saints,” said the Rev. Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement. “What quickly happens is that participants begin to learn more about the saints. And, of course, the study of saints’ lives invites us to let Christ’s light burn brightly in our own lives.”
This year’s event brings a few Anglican favorites into the fray, including Phillips Brooks, who served as Bishop of Massachusetts in the 1890s. He’ll duke it out with Simeon the Stylite, whose formidable endurance kept him atop a pole near Aleppo, Syria, for no less than 37 years in the 5th century.
Other much-anticipated matchups include the two great Catherines: Catherine of Alexandria versus Catherine of Siena. Sibling rivalry will have its moment, too, as brothers Charles and John Wesley see whose pious fire burns brighter on game day.
For fans, taking part daily can be a lighthearted Lenten discipline, Schenck said. The practice of boning up on saints’ lives leaves participants with a deeper appreciation for saints as real people, not merely statues or figures frozen in stained glass.
“Ultimately this is about faith formation,” Schenck said. “What we hope Lent Madness does is elevate these saints and make them real in a fresh way.”
The wider society is taking notice. Lent Madness has drawn coverage in publications ranging from USA Today and the Washington Post to Sports Illustrated.
“I love the fact that it gets a very wide number of people talking about the church for something other than scandal or decline,” Schenck said. Lent Madness “is something that’s able to get God into the broader conversation of society. … I love the fact that it’s done that.”