Local stories, events, and Catholic inspiration in northeast Wisconsin

Ash Wednesday and receiving ashes

Ashes draw us back to church to start each Lenten journey

By Patricia Kasten | On Mission

GREEN BAY — How can you tell it’s Ash Wednesday?

When you see people with the mark of ashes on their foreheads.

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, falls on Feb. 14 this year. There is something about Ash Wednesday that draws people to church every year. Even those who do not regularly attend Mass show up for this day — which is not even a holy day of obligation.

“One of the most well attended Masses of the whole liturgical year is Ash Wednesday,” said Norbertine Fr. Mike Brennan, pastor of St. Norbert College Parish in De Pere.  “Students, faculty, staff and parishioners fill Old St. Joe’s to mark the beginning of the Lenten season.”

On MIssion media file photo
A young man receives ashes during an Ash Wednesday Mass March 6, 2022, at SS. Peter and Paul Church in Green Bay. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent.

While he’s not certain exactly what the attraction is on Ash Wednesday, Fr Brennan said he does believe “the public marking of our foreheads calls us into community. We recognize that we are not alone in our Christian journey.” 

Not alone’

Fr. Zach Weber, chaplain and director at Oshkosh Newman Center at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, said he also sees more students at Mass on Ash Wednesday as well: “by 100 or more.”

Why the popularity?

“Honestly, it baffles me,” Fr. Weber said. “Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, and we rub ashes on their foreheads. People seem to be affected by the symbolism of their mortality.”

Fr. Joseph Aytona, a Father of Mercy and rector at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion, said that he has found similar increases in attendance in his experience as a priest: “They want to receive “their ashes,” he said, adding that he believes people may be confused about what ashes mean or do for them.

“If I were to take a guess,” Fr. Aytona said, “more people show up to Ash Wednesday Mass (compared to a usual Sunday obligatory Mass) because of superstitious reasons. Perhaps some may think they will ‘go to hell’ if they don’t receive their ashes, or somehow, by receiving ashes, their Lenten obligation for penance is already fulfilled. Whatever the reason may be, many Catholics believe receiving ashes is obligatory for their faith life.”

‘A visual sign’

Fr. Kyle Sladek, administrator at Sacred Heart of Jesus in Poy Sippi and St. Mark in Red Granite, as well as priest celebration at St. Paul Parish in Plainfield, said people enjoy receiving ashes. And he believes that they “receive ashes (as) a visual sign that they attended a liturgy and are Catholic. Catholics seem to enjoy this one day each year when we can visually be in solidarity with each other at our workplaces, neighborhoods, and social circles.”

The popularity of receiving ashes happens all around the Diocese of Green Bay. But it is not just Catholics who receive ashes — Lutherans, Episcopalians, United Methodists, even some Presbyterians and Baptists, attend Ash Wednesday services. Some churches even have drive-thru distribution of ashes, as St. Anne Episcopal Church in De Pere has done for several years.  

This shared event most likely reflects the fact that the tradition of Ash Wednesday traces a long way back in Christian tradition. On Feb. 22, 1091, this custom — then about 100 years old — was ordered extended to the entire church by Pope Urban II.

Why, 900 years later, does the appeal of Ash Wednesday continue to draw people to church?

Franciscan Sr. Laura Zelten, director of campus ministry at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, asked her student leaders in campus ministry about this.

‘An invitation’

“They mentioned that Ash Wednesday and Lent are important aspects of their spirituality,” she said. “They look to Ash Wednesday and Lent as an invitation. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent and receiving the ashes is a way for them to publicly show that they are believers.”

She added that the students told her that Lent, for them, is one of the most important seasons in the church year.

They also told her that “it helps to receive a text from their mom or grandmother on Wed. morning, reminding them to go to church.”

Fr. Brennan finds that more students at St. Norbert College attend Mass on Ash Wednesday as well.

“Although I don’t know for certain why there is such a strong pull to Ash Wednesday,” he said, “I have a couple of ideas:

·         “Deep within us there is a deep desire for God; a desire to live the life to which Jesus Christ calls us.” 

·         “Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a season of repentance and renewal; it is an opportunity to publicly express our desire to grow in relationship with God and neighbor.” 

Welcome to come again 

Whatever the reason for increased attendance on Ash Wednesday, pastoral leaders agree that Ash Wednesday’s popularity offers an opportunity to make people feel welcome to come back again – before Ash Wednesday next year.

“We try to engage them during and after Mass to get connected by doing something human with them, like signing up for a coffee shop gathering or going to shoot pool,” said Fr. Weber. “We hope to meet them where they are at, journey with them one on one, and invite them to a life-changing encounter with Jesus through the sacramental life of the Church. We do our best to allow everything we do to be driven by prayer before asking and inviting others to give themselves completely to the Lord.”

Fr. Sladek noted that the beginning of Lent is important to Catholics. “Attending Mass on this day is also popular,” he said, “because many Catholics are earnestly seeking to begin the season of Lent well, by assisting at the perfect prayer and being reminded that they are but dust, and to dust they will return.”

For Ash Wednesday services, see this Mass schedule listing: Mass Schedules – OnMissionMedia.com

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