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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  • The mission field here is wide open.

    The problem is only the Mormon’s and Pentacostal’s realize it.  I once sat next to a Mormon missionary, Elder Steven, all the way from Chicago to Boston.  1/2 the plane were Mormon’s on their way to evangelize the pagan’s in the Boston area.

  • One of our deacons noted during the Ash Wednesday liturgy I attended last night that attendance at Ash Wednesday for our parish is larger than Christmas and Easter.  He asked that those in attendance for Ash Wednesday attend each and every Sunday.

  • I heard this year that there are actually many Protestants who have started attending Catholic churches on Ash Wednesday which causes some of the bump.  My pastor also said that you’d think he was distributing gold dust from the way his phone rings off the hook to find out when ashes are being given out.  Just noting…

  • In re fast-food during Lent.

    I was at a Taco Bell last year where they had set up a special board on the counter that listed everything they had on the menu that was meat-free.

  • This is part of the reason that Catholics should never have dropped the Catholic traditions that were unique – this would include architecture and music… not that these things are the end all and be all by any means but for some, they are what kept them in the fold to some degree – when these things were jettisoned, too many people left the fold for one reason or another. It’s kind of like how some families are not close and don’t have time for getting together except at Christmas or Thanksgiving – thank God we have those holidays or some families would never see each other.

    I wish I could articulate this better!

  • At the two Masses which were held yesterday at my parish, we had more people than we have at a regular weekend Mass or even at our Good Friday Liturgy.

    I guess it is good that they are at least coming on Ash Wednesday, but what really burns me up is the people who want ashes for their homebound relatives, but don’t think having someone come to the house to bring Communion to the homebound person is important. At least several times a year on Ash Wednesday I hear, “Oh, they don’t need Communion. They just want ashes”.

    Burns me up!

  • Back in the “old days,” a lot of Protestants did “fish on Fridays” just because it had a nice ring to it or whatever.  Of course, given the health benefits of eating fish, versus meat, in general, that was not a bad thing.

    As for the Mass attendance, I went to a Mass last Lent where the priest took it a step further: he said the Mass attendance on Palm Sunday & Ash Wednesday was *bigger* than Christmas or Easter.

    Oh, by the way, the Maronites have a beautiful Easter liturgy that involves Veneration of the Cross: a crucifix is placed in the Tabernacle from GOod Friday service till Easter Sunday.  At the end of Easter Sunday liturgy (it’s an option to do it during Mass or after), the crucifix is removed from the Tabernacle, and everyone files up to kiss it.  Then each person is given a blessed rose or lily. 

    In terms of those “nice touches” where you leave with something tangible, it rounds out the Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday “gifts”.

  • To echo Colleen’s point…at work on Ash Wednesday, one of my collegues was complaining about the dispensation from abstinence from meat sometimes granted when St Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday during Lent, characterizing it by saying “It just shows how quick the Church is to sell out to popular opinion.”  Of course this same person complains that the Church is unbending on such relatively minor issues as same sex marriage and contaception….

  • Is John Kerry looking at a vision before he is blinded and stumbles off seeking his own Ananias?  Is there a Damascus in Massachusetts?