The importance of Ash Wednesday to Catholics barely holding on

The importance of Ash Wednesday to Catholics barely holding on

Kerryashes “Campus churches note large turnout on Ash Wednesday”

Father Paul Helfrich, Catholic chaplain at Boston University, said although Sunday masses usually only bring about 650 students, he expected about 1,300 students at the four Catholic mass services held at Marsh Chapel yesterday.

“Most Catholics understand the need to take some steps to reinvigorate and renew their spiritual life, and Ash Wednesday provides a great opportunity to do that,” he said.

It’s one of the quirks of Catholicism that it’s those observances that aren’t the most important to actual devotion, faith, and worship that are most important to many Catholics who would otherwise disdain the practice of their faith. I’ve had priests tell me that the biggest congregations of the year—apart from the obvious holy days of Easter and Christmas—are Palm Sunday and Ash Wednesday. The theory is that on those latter two days you actually leave the church with some evidence of your continuing association with the Catholic faith, namely ashes and palms. The thinking is that if you don’t get your ashes on Ash Wednesday, you lose your Catholic identity. What’s ironic is that ashes are neither a sacrament nor are they a requirement of Catholics. Of all the things that many Catholics latch onto it’s the things that are the least important, at least compared with the sacraments of the Eucharist and confession and the rest.

It’s kind of funny and hopeful, in a way, how even the least observant Catholics often maintain the slightest cultural attachments. For instance, at least in the Boston area, where half of the population is nominally Catholic but only about 20 percent of them attend Mass weekly, restaurants that don’t sell fish report a significant drop in income on Fridays in Lent and places like McDonald’s report a surge in sales of fish items. Even Boston Market—which normally sells mostly chicken—sells a fish meal that it markets as a Lenten offering. Even KFC is getting into the act—marketing a fish sandwich that it is ham-handedly selling with a Catholic Lenten connection.

The point is that the mission field is not barren, but that there remain seeds and shoots that can be cultivated and blossom into full-blown faith. Right now there remains an opportunity for evangelization and catechesis to change this current generation. But if we wait too long, will the next generation have even that left?


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Written by
Domenico Bettinelli