Ashes seem especially significant after two years of pandemic - Catholic Courier
Bishop Robert P. Deeley of Portland, Maine, makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of a child during Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland March 2, 2022. Bishop Robert P. Deeley of Portland, Maine, makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of a child during Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland March 2, 2022. (CNS photo courtesy Diocese of Portland

Ashes seem especially significant after two years of pandemic

NASHVILLE Tenn. (CNS) — This year’s observance of Ash Wednesday, marking the start of Lent, seemed to especially resonate with the faithful following two years of COVID-19 restrictions.

At the 12:10 p.m. Mass at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville March 2, the pews were filled with more than 700 people, who walked out with the ashes on their forehead as a visible symbol of penance.

It was a similar scene at Christ the King Church, St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows Church and St. Patrick Church in Nashville where large crowds received ashes.

“It’s wonderful to see people coming back and we want to be a source of welcome and hospitality for all those who are returning to or visiting the Cathedral,” said Father Erick Fowlkes, pastor of the Cathedral of the Incarnation.

“There is a very profound hunger in the human heart for everything that we celebrate at Ash Wednesday and just knowing that it’s about going home,” he told the Tennessee Register, Nashville’s diocesan newspaper.

“And this year, especially after being absent and the restrictions that we’ve all gone through,” he said, “to feel that family coming back together again, to be able to receive ashes according to our tradition on the forehead, I think was a significant blessing to people this year.”

While not a holy day of obligation for Catholics, Ash Wednesday launches the important liturgical season of Lent, during which the faithful prepare for the celebration of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ.

“Ash Wednesday is a beautiful opportunity to enter into the beginning of the Lenten season, to have an act of humility, to pray, to fast and to recognize humbly that we are sinners, but that our sins don’t have the last word because of the triumph of the cross,” said Father John Hammond, pastor of St. Patrick Church in South Nashville and judicial vicar and vicar general for the Diocese of Nashville.

While the season of Lent has been a regular practice in the church since the first century, Ash Wednesday did not begin until centuries later.

“Ash Wednesday is only about 1,000 years old, so it’s much newer than the season of Lent,” Father Hammond said. “In the earlier centuries of the church, Lent would often have just begun on that first Sunday of Lent, but about 1,000 years ago, there developed this practice of having this penitential day to start the Lenten season.

“While at first the ashes were just for a few people who needed to do public penance for something more serious,” Father Hammond said, “it quickly became universal because it’s such a powerful symbol.”

The use of ashes as a symbol of penance dates back to the time of the Old Testament, Father Hammond added.

“People really resonate with Ash Wednesday. They like the sign, they like the outward visible symbol, they like the realism that comes with Ash Wednesday,” Father Hammond said. “It’s a very realistic feast day because we’re saying, ‘I acknowledge that I’m weak. I acknowledge that I’m a sinner.'”

In Portland, Maine, Bishop Robert P. Deeley echoed the Nashville priest’s sentiment at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

He told the faithful gathered at an Ash Wednesday Mass that “the imposition of the ashes reminds us that we are in need, in our fallen nature, our sin, if you will, to reform, to convert, to change.”

“But the ashes also remind us of our origin and the creative love of God, and show us that, with God’s help, all things are possible,” he said.

With the rite of ashes, “we begin our journey toward Easter,” he said. “By opening ourselves to the love and mercy of God we believe that we can be forgiven and then work at leaving behind the sin which is part of our lives, and become the new persons that Jesus makes us at Easter with his new life.”

He emphasized the three pillars of Lent — fasting, prayer, almsgiving.

“The principle is simple, but a lifelong challenge. We should live for God, and not for the applause or praise of those around us. And concretely, Jesus gives us three ways in which we can do that, make ourselves better Christians, and make our world a better place,” said Bishop Deeley.

“We are prepared. We have the simple ingredients. We just have to put them to work. Live for God alone in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving,” he said.

In an Ash Wednesday pastoral letter to the faithful of his diocese, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, said that everyone recognizes Lent always “holds the promise of many graces and blessings for the people of God.”

But this year, he said, the observance of Lent “is as critical as it has ever been.”

“The season of Lent this year takes place in a profoundly troubled world,” he said, citing, among other things, “the brutal war in Ukraine,” the COVID-19 pandemic, violent crime, a U.S. political system that is “broken, hopelessly deadlocked in predictable partisan bickering,” and the nation’s continued “relentless assault on innocent, unborn children in the “abominable crime” of abortion.

“Traditional moral values related to marriage and family, human sexuality and biology, are being challenged and discarded every day,” Bishop Tobin said. “The church is shaken and saddened by new accusations of past incidents of sexual abuse of minors. And people everywhere are on edge, ready to picket and protest, fight and sue at every offense, real or perceived.”

“In surveying this depressing litany of societal and communal woes, I cannot help but think that God must be very disappointed and angry with us, his children,” he said.

“At the same time, we shouldn’t forget that the real moral challenge, the ultimate struggle for grace and peace, takes place in our own hearts and souls,” Bishop Tobin said.

“As a people and as individuals we need to be purified, restored and renewed by the cleansing power of God’s grace!” he wrote.

He urged pastors of the diocese “to lead the faithful in a serious and full observance of Lent,” by doing their best “to reach out to your people, welcome them home, provide them with all of the resources the church gives us to celebrate the season of Lent worthily,” from Mass to traditional devotions, like the Stations of the Cross, to visitation and care for the sick, and increased opportunities for the sacrament of reconciliation.

The bishop urged the faithful “to enter the season of Lent with real determination” by going to Mass on Sundays and, if possible, during the week; reading the word of God; praying often at church, home and school; and “taking seriously the call of the church to fast and abstain, not just from food, but from other unhealthy attachments as well”; going to confession; and supporting the church’s charitable works.

“I believe that if we engage the season of Lent in a serious way, the darkness of the world, the decadence of society, and the anxiety of our souls will give way to the goodness and light of Christ,” Bishop Tobin said.


Peterson is on the staff of the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville.

Tags: Catholic Beliefs
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