By Catholic News Service
IN A NUTSHELL
A great many Christians enter Lent with the firm intention of praying in a more committed way and a conviction that prayer will open a path for them toward new life and hope.
Lent is a kind of a spiritual do-over, and Ash Wednesday -- the starting line of Lent -- is when the work begins.
How can parishes hold on to these Ash Wednesday Catholics? Give them opportunities to practice their Lenten call to prayer, fasting and almsgiving throughout the year.
Bringing hope back to life in Lent
By David Gibson | Catholic News Service
"The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life."
Those words appear in Pope Benedict XVI's 2007 encyclical on hope titled "Spe Salvi," a title based on St. Paul's statement in his Letter to the Romans that "in hope we were saved" (8:24). They sum up certain key goals of the Christian season of Lent.
In Lent Christians pursue ways of living differently -- better and in more hopeful ways, that is. The actual possibility of "new life" is Lent's promise.
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving for the care of poor and suffering people are three central Lenten practices. A great many Christians enter Lent with the firm intention of praying in a more committed way during these weeks and a conviction that prayer will open a path for them toward new life and hope.
Vietnamese Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan testified forcefully in the late 20th century to the intimate relationship between prayer and hope. Pope Benedict's encyclical speaks of this.
Remarkably, during Cardinal Van Thuan's long, senseless and cruel imprisonment by Vietnam's communist authorities beginning in 1975, the virtue of hope, rooted in prayer, was powerful for him. Pope Benedict wrote:
"(The cardinal), a prisoner for 13 years, nine of them spent in solitary confinement, has left us a precious little book, 'Prayers of Hope.'
"During 13 years in jail, in a situation of seemingly utter hopelessness, the fact that he could listen and speak to God became for him an increasing power of hope, which enabled him after his release to become for people all over the world a witness to hope -- to that great hope that does not wane even in nights of solitude" (No. 32).
However, the problem of prayer often is that we do not sense it is leading to anything as rewarding as the hope Cardinal Van Thuan experienced. Instead, we start Lent with the best intentions, viewing it as a unique time for prayer and spirituality, but find that this fervor can somewhat readily fade.
Perhaps we do not feel that we really know how to pray, how to "listen" to God and to "speak" with God, as Cardinal Van Thuan did. Instead of conversing openly with God about our most intimate concerns, we may lay out in the same rote way day by day our list of petitions to God for family members, sick friends and people who make their needs known to us.
Certainly, petitions are an integral element of Christian prayer. "I remember you constantly, always asking in my prayers that somehow by God's will I may at last find my way clear to come to you," Paul wrote to the Romans (1:9-10).
Still, at some point we are likely to wonder whether some new ingredient needs to be stirred into our prayer life. What can we do if we feel bogged down by our own ways of praying in private?
One possibility is to make time for meditation, to reflect in ongoing ways on important concerns of Christian faith that relate to the actual life we lead. Hope seems to be a more-than-worthy candidate for this kind of prayer and meditation. It is difficult to envision the possibility of the "new life" Pope Benedict mentions when hope has withered.
"A first essential setting for learning hope is prayer," said Pope Benedict (No. 32). "When we pray properly," he added, "we undergo a process of inner purification that opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings" (No. 33).
Lent is a season of change. It usually is called a season of conversion, which ultimately involves turning in a new direction.
Bishop Robert N. Lynch remarked in 2010 that Lent "at its core" is about "a deep and sincere change of heart." The now-retired bishop of St. Petersburg, Florida, hoped that "any practice like fasting, which is embraced during this season," would lead to change that lasts "a lifetime."
Of course, the term "change of heart" refers to a change of some real consequence, possibly a change in attitude or priorities.
Do certain expectations or judgments -- certain established ways of thinking about ourselves, others and our surrounding world -- rule our lives, even though they contribute to draining happiness and hopefulness from us?
Have we considered whether our priorities -- our set goals, how we allot our limited time -- deserve new thought?
Are we in conflict with ourselves or others in noteworthy ways that deserve attention and might benefit enormously from more reconciling, supportive attitudes?
A process of conversion is meant to take place throughout life, Ireland's Catholic bishops commented in 2012. They explained:
"We can gradually come to know ourselves and our destiny better. It is also true that as life goes on we acquire new blind spots, new denials of our responsibilities, new self-justifications."
Thus, said the bishops, "the process (of conversion) is never completed, and it involves setbacks as well as growth until we meet the Lord at the end of our lives."
Gibson served on Catholic News Service's editorial staff for 37 years.
Ash Wednesday: A point of re-entry?
By Mike Nelson | Catholic News Service
Unlike Christmas, Easter and every Sunday of the year, Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. Maybe that's part of the draw for some people, who fill their parish churches for Ash Wednesday liturgies as they rarely do at any other time.
"Yes, we get big turnouts for Ash Wednesday," says Father Dan Rupp, pastor of Mater Dei Church in Sioux City, Iowa. "It seems like many of these folks are people who also come for the blessing of the throats, or anytime there is something different going on than at most Sunday liturgies."
Or, in some cases, when something is being given away, like palms on Palm Sunday, smiles Father Adam Lee Ortega, pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
"Every year, after our Ash Wednesday Masses are done, people will rush up asking, 'Are you still giving out ashes?' And we say, 'No, we're done.' What we need to help them understand is that it's not about the ashes, it's about the Eucharist."
And, in fact, Father Ortega, like many pastors throughout the country, finds Ash Wednesday can be an ideal point of entry, or re-entry, into an active Catholic life.
"I think many people have a good intention to begin their spiritual journey, to improve their lives when they come to Mass on Ash Wednesday," he says. "So I try to communicate a message of welcome: 'We're glad you're here, and we want to help you become ready for this great spiritual journey.'"
Ash Wednesday provides a particularly strong opportunity to evangelize younger and/or inactive Catholics, according to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, and cited in "Sparks from Ashes: An Ash Wednesday Young Adult Evangelization Plan," from the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois.
The study found that in comparison to the 15 percent of Generation Xers (mid-30s to early 50s) and 17 percent of millennials (late teens to mid-30s) who attend Mass weekly, 40 percent of Gen Xers and 50 percent of millennials attend Ash Wednesday services, "with equally impressive numbers for other Lenten practices such as fasting, abstaining and almsgiving," the report stated.
The reasons for these "inactive and semi-active" young adults' Ash Wednesday and Lenten participation varies, from "a subconscious Catholic identity" and "sense of nostalgia" (reminding them of "earlier, less stressful times") to peer pressure and "pop culture" (the connection to Mardi Gras).
Perhaps most poignantly, the report notes, "the winter months are times when depression, loneliness and lack of purpose sinks into people's lives, especially among young adults. Getting reconnected to a spiritual or religious experience becomes a priority, and Ash Wednesday is the physical expression of that need for meaning, purpose, comfort or direction."
So how can parishes hold on to these Ash Wednesday Catholics? To start with, say pastors, give them seasonal opportunities to practice their Lenten call to prayer, fasting and almsgiving: Distribute devotional guides, host fellowship Lenten meals and suggest possibilities for volunteering in their neighborhood.
Most important, offer them something more than ashes.
"I try always to communicate the joy of the Gospel in my homilies, that there is comfort and peace within the teaching of Jesus," says Father Rupp in Sioux City. "Many folks who don't come often to Mass have the attitude that religion brings us misery, and that's something we have to overcome."
Father Ortega in Santa Fe -- who moves the distribution of ashes to the end, rather than the middle, of Ash Wednesday Mass, so that attendees hear the homily and receive Communion -- says Mass attendance definitely increases during Lent.
"And some continue to come after Easter, though not in the same numbers," he says. "In the end, you have to accept people where they're at, as Jesus did, and pray that a seed has been planted that can be nourished and bring them to a life of participation in the church."
Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.
It's what's inside that counts
By Susan Hines-Brigger | Catholic News Service
On Ash Wednesday, it's not hard to identify Catholics. The smudge of ashes in the shape of a cross on their foreheads is a solid giveaway. The interesting part, though, is that the purpose of those ashes is quite the opposite of the "Hey, look at me" message it seems to send.
In fact, the day's Gospel reading says to avoid looking as if you are fasting, to "anoint your head and wash your face." That seems contradictory, doesn't it?
As we receive our ashes, we are reminded to "turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel." Ashes serve as a visible reminder to us -- and others -- that we have sinned and must now begin again. It's kind of a spiritual do-over, and Ash Wednesday -- the starting line of Lent -- is when the work begins.
The first and second readings serve as a wake-up call for us, urging us to "return to the Lord, your God," and remember that "we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us."
Now that we are awake, today's Gospel truly instructs us how to go forth on our Lenten journey.
Matthew highlights the three pillars of Lent -- prayer, fasting and almsgiving -- and gives us a simple guide to what we should and should not be doing. He reminds the reader that "your Father who sees in secret will repay you."
Matthew lays it out very clearly and straightforward in terms of how to carry out the pillars of Lent.
He writes that when we give alms, we should "not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others," but rather, "when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret."
He provides similar advice regarding prayer and fasting. When praying we are not to "be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them."
In this age of Facebook, selfies and constant contact, it's hard to do things quietly. Or, maybe it's that people don't want or know how to do things quietly.
It seems as if all our actions are captured and instantly communicated with as wide of an audience of people as we can manage. We gauge ourselves on likes, shares, followers.
Listening to the Gospel, you would think that Matthew had a sneak peek into today's culture when he wrote it.
As the Gospel continually reminds us, our actions are seen by God and that is what truly matters. That should be enough.
So, yes, today, we will wear our ashes that tell those who see us that we are Catholic. Some Catholics may even take a selfie while wearing them.
We must remember, though, to see the ashes for what they remind us to do: Look inward and prepare ourselves. For it is only in dying to ourselves that we can begin our Lenten journey toward the resurrection.
Hines-Brigger is a columnist with St. Anthony Messenger.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
"Ash Wednesday is a day when we literally wear our faith on our forehead," Julianne Stanz wrote in a popular 2016 column titled "To #ashtag or not to #ashtag on social media" for The Compass, newspaper for the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Ashes symbolize our mortality, need for conversion and the day when we ultimately will be judged by God, noted Stanz, director of new evangelization for the diocese.
It's a growing trend, especially among younger generations, she observed, to post selfies on social media featuring the ashes along with the hashtag #ashtag.
But doesn't this contradict the Lenten spirit of praying, fasting and giving almsgiving alms "in secret" so that only God sees them (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18)?
On Ash Wednesday, we become "a visual extension of the love of Christ -- a love that transcends time and distance, whether in the real world or the virtual world," Stanz answered.
Catholics can use their presence online to "turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel," she said.
Before posting, however, "pause to pray," she advised, and "examine your reasons for doing so."
"Invite others to ask questions or to seek clarification online," or even better, "sit down with people and be present to them face to face," Stanz wrote.
Read the full article at www.thecompassnews.org/2016/02/to-ashtag-or-not-to-ashtag-on-social-media.