Thursday, May 23, 2024

Do We Want to Get Back to Normal, or Does Lent Call Us to Something to Deeper, Bishop Asks on Ash Wednesday

“Do we need Lent this year?”

That’s the question Bishop Ronald Gainer posed as he celebrated noon Mass on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17, at St. Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg.

“It may well be that you and I are less eager this year for Ash Wednesday and to begin the season of Lent than we have been in past years. After all, it seems like we’ve been living Lent for 11 months now,” he said in his homily.

“Do we really need the ashes – a sign of our mortality, a sign of the limitedness and vulnerability and fragility of human life – when every day we hear the new count of those who have died from the coronavirus in our state, in our nation, in the world?”

“Do we need Lent this year?” he asked.

It’s a stark yet admittedly honest question, but one that has a rapid and firm answer: Yes.

“It is the real question that this Lent puts before us when it comes to our spiritual life, our life in Christ. Do we just want to get back to normal? Or is God calling us, through his grace and will, to something higher, something deeper, something richer, something fuller in our lives of faith?” Bishop Gainer posed to the congregation. “Do we just want to get back to normal spiritually, or is Lent telling us that’s not what we should want?

“We should want a richer, fuller, more satisfying and active life of grace in Christ, in and through our Catholic Church,” he said.


The Sprinkling of Ashes

Ash Wednesday begins the penitential season of Lent, the 40-day period before Easter in which we are asked to devote ourselves to seeking the Lord in prayer, in service by giving alms, and in sacrifice through fasting. It is a time of repentance and renewal of our faith in Christ.

On Ash Wednesday, Christians receive ashes as a sign of repentance and mortality. This year, the distribution of ashes took a different form, notably for Christians in the United States. In an effort to limit contact between ministers and recipients, ashes were sprinkled over the heads of individuals, instead of marked on the forehead in the form of a cross.

At the request of the Vatican’s Congregation for Diving Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, parishes in the Diocese and throughout the United States took up this method of distribution to limit contact during the COVID-19 pandemic. While many might consider it a new form, the sprinkling of ashes on the top of the head is actually a biblical custom that’s common place in many parts of the world, including in Rome and throughout Europe.

Attending Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Joseph Church in York, Kelly Brown told The Witness that receiving them on top of his head held the same significance as receiving them on his forehead in past years.

“It did not feel unusual or uncomfortable to me,” said Brown, the Grand Knight of Council #6353. He said he thought the change in the method of distribution “was a very good idea” given the pandemic, and said that even though they weren’t as visible in the usual form of a cross on the forehead, they could still be seen as an outward sign of repentance.

The Knights of Columbus Council #6353 are present at each Mass at St. Joseph Church, opening doors for parishioners and visitors, ensuring that everyone has a face covering and assisting with seating and counting the number of people in attendance, among other acts of service.

Brown said he observed nearly 220 parishioners in the church and 25 listening to Mass in their vehicles during the 7 p.m. Mass.

“In watching this change in receiving ashes, it was noted as being well received by parishioners inside the church and outside in their cars. Based on my observations, the distribution of Communion and the receiving of ashes outside went extremely well,” he said.


Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving

In his homily for the noon Mass at St. Patrick Cathedral, Bishop Gainer called the faithful to take advantage of opportunities for prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

“We should not want to just get back to normal in our spiritual lives,” he said. “We want it to be greater, richer, deeper, fuller. Those are the graces that Lent offers to us through those traditional works of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.”

“Very often, we know what needs to be changed. We might know how we need to change and what to do to change ourselves, but we say, ‘Someday,’” he remarked. “But Ash Wednesday has those words ringing in our ears: Now is the very acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.”

Find resources for your Lenten journey – including prayers, information on fasting and opportunities for almsgiving – online at

(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)

By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness

A man is seen in prayer prior to the start of Mass at St. Patrick Cathedral on Ash Wednesday.
Bishop Ronald Gainer sprinkles ashes over the head of Deacon Thomas Lang.
The sprinkling of ashes is seen during Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Patrick Cathedral. The change in the method of distribution, one that dates back to biblical times, was made to limit contact between minister and recipient.
A man receives ashes from Father Joshua Brommer, rector of St. Patrick Cathedral.
Bishop Ronald Gainer celebrates the Liturgy of the Eucharist on Ash Wednesday, which begins the penitential season of Lent.
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