STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
OK, we're getting pretty deep into Lent, the season during which Christians prepare themselves for Easter. If you gave up something for Lent, like chocolate or Facebook or yelling at the kids, it can start to feel like a pretty long time. But consider the man who re-imagined Lent as a kind of March Madness.
Deena Prichep reports.
DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: As far as Christian practices go, the season of Lent is not usually a favorite.
FATHER TIM SCHENCK: A lot of people see Lent as the church's season of doom and gloom, and guilt and depression, and eating dirt and wearing hair-shirts.
PRICHEP: Tim Schenck is an Episcopalian priest in Massachusetts. He acknowledges that repentance and self-denial are a part of Lent. But people can also use it as a time to take on positive practices - which is kind of the point.
SCHENCK: What could be more joyful than a season in the church year specifically set aside to grow your faith, to be closer to God?
PRICHEP: And so four years ago he started Lent Madness. Complete with theme song.
(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN MUSIC)
SCHENCK: We put 32 saints in a basketball-type bracket and they go at it.
PRICHEP: Lent Madness pits saints against each other for the coveted Golden Halo. There is a website with weekly video updates, and regular blog posts. Every day, thousands of people read about and vote for their favorite saints. And some churches, like St. Gabriel's in Portland, Oregon, even take it a little further.
MADDIE REIFSTECK: I'm Catherine of Sienna. And she's like some sort of nun or something that gets the job done, apparently.
PRICHEP: Twelve-year-old Maddie Reifsteck was one of 32 volunteers who helped parishioners get in the spirit Lent Madness with a little saintly role playing. Her competition includes John of the Cross and Basil the Great. But also more recent saintly figures, like abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. And theologian John Wesley, portrayed here by Don McMahon.
DON MCMAHON: John Wesley wrote something like 6,00 hymns, some of which we still sing, many of which we still sing today. Vote for John, he's the man.
LOUANN PICKERING: To listen with our whole self is what we're called to do, especially during the season of Lent.
PRICHEP: LouAnn Pickering is the vicar at St. Gabriel's.
PICKERING: And that's the case here. It's an opportunity for people to listen with their whole being, including their funny bone. Which is an important part of who we are, after all.
PRICHEP: St. Gabriel's, like many churches, also has a somewhat somber feel during Lent. The crosses are veiled and the silver bells are put away. But Pickering says the fun of Lent Madness does tie into the work of preparing for the coming Easter.
PICKERING: You need to read the biography. You need to read the prayer. You need to spend some time in some sort of contemplation as to how you're going to vote.
PICKERING: And that's a discipline. You know, that's a spiritual discipline.
PRICHEP: And this discipline can help people live out their faith. Because, as Lent Madness founder Tim Schenck says, by virtue of baptism, even flawed people are saints. And saints, when you learn about them, are flawed people.
SCHENCK: I think so often we stick saints in stained glass, and we put them in statues or we trap them into oil paintings. But these were real people with blood coursing through their veins. And so as people learn about these different saints, they are really drawing some inspiration from their lives.
PRICHEP: As for which inspirational figure will win this year's Golden Halo, Lent Madness will reveal the final vote on April 16.
For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.