I've spoken now with a fair number of pastors about their Ash Wednesday experience this year, and many have said that it feels like something new is happening -- a new longing, a new awakening.
In the life of the Church, Ash Wednesday plays a very important role. It plays an especially important role in evangelization.
First, our participation in the work of the new evangelization, our commitment to be disciple makers, always begins with our own commitment to ongoing conversion. Every day we seek to fall more deeply in love with Jesus. Every day we seek to turn away from our sins. And Ash Wednesday is one of those moments in the year when the thoughts of all Catholics are turned to our personal, ongoing conversion.
Second, Ash Wednesday makes all of us witnesses to our faith. We choose to take upon ourselves a public mark of our Christianity, a mark that all the world can see, and that most understand. We are indeed ambassadors for Christ, as the second reading on Ash Wednesday tells us, albeit ash covered ambassadors. We go about as sinners among sinners, inviting others to the same conversion we ourselves are seeking. Accompaniment is a major theme in the work of evangelization.
Third, on Ash Wednesday, many parishes seem to have a particular flair for being accessible. I myself spent the day at the Seaport Shrine. We had eight Masses, confessions from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., gave ashes to anyone who came at any time, and had street evangelists spread throughout the local neighborhood giving people cards inviting them to come. And thousands did. The doors were wide open all day, figuratively and literally. It was a wild, frenetic, at times chaotic, prayerful, profound, and even fun day.
The Seaport was only one of many places around the archdiocese where that was the experience. Many, perhaps even most, parishes used Ash Wednesday this year as a means of outreach. A number of parishes had trained teams in place from very early in the morning until very late at night, giving ashes, engaging with visitors, inviting them to prayer and to confession, and putting some simple cards or books in their hands to help them through their Lenten journeys. I've spoken now with a fair number of pastors about their Ash Wednesday experience this year, and many have said that it feels like something new is happening -- a new longing, a new awakening.
When the crowds come on Christmas, they come for many reasons, and it can be hard to reach them (though we need to continue to try). The same may perhaps be said about Easter Sunday. But when the crowds show up for Ash Wednesday -- and they do -- it may be that there are more basic things going on. It is about identity, to be sure, and that is a really good thing -- we should be dancing in the streets with joy that so many people want to be marked publicly as being Catholic. It is also about an awareness of sin. It is about repentance, about starting over, and our longing to start over is a basic, primal, Christian longing, and one of the healthiest things we've got.
In our parishes we use moments like Ash Wednesday, "gateway moments" if you will, to evangelize, to give witness to what Jesus has done for us, and to invite others into a loving relationship with him. I pray that we may continue to take full advantage of this moment, and of the many other gateway moments that parish life affords us.
May God bless you during this holy Lenten time.
Father Paul Soper is the Secretary for Evangelization and Discipleship for the Archdiocese of Boston, as well as the Director of Pastoral Planning.