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Bishop Paul Sirba: Lent and our strategic plan have much in common

During Lent we pray. Our prayer invites us to a deeper communion with Jesus. We offer him ourselves in an ever-growing relationship.

We fast. We give up things and stuff, the clutter, so as to rediscover the value and worth of all the good gifts we have been given by God.

Bishop Paul Sirba

Bishop Paul Sirba
Fiat Voluntas Tua

We give alms. We see the face of Christ in others and respond to our brothers and sisters in need. In giving we become free and generous. What we have received we are to give as a gift.

Getting back to the basics, the fundamentals, what is essential, informs our Lent.

Lent is a blueprint for the implementation of our strategic plan. The image presented in St. John’s Gospel 15:1-4 is, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and everyone that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you. Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.”

Over the past few years we have implemented a good part of our strategic plan.

With the upcoming assignments in July, I hope to have implemented 90 percent of the plan. The implementation began in 2012 and will mature in 2017. You can review our strategic plan and implementation on our diocesan website (www.dioceseduluth. org).

Conversations have already begun for the next phase of strategic planning, which opens us up to “the how” of the New Evangelization.

While the process has been at times painful — it hurts, initially, to make the cut — overall it has been fruitful. Your spirit of sacrifice and the new seeds planted in the offering are already beginning to bear fruit. Fertile soil is being cultivated. The New Evangelization is taking root. Pope Francis is leading us to go to the fringes and invite people to the wedding banquet.

Some of our priests and parishioners are already going door to door. Surprised but receptive neighbors are saying, “We didn’t expect Catholics to be doing this!” Let’s continue to surprise!

Large agenda

Planning for our Eucharistic procession, at the conclusion of our 125th anniversary on Sept. 12, will give us another level of witness. Our theme, “Celebrating 125 years: Our Story, Our Faith,” provides an opportunity to thank Almighty God for all he has done for us and to trust where he is leading us.

As the people of God, we will continue to address the availability of priests and deacons and ask how we can help them live healthy lives.

We will pray for vocations to the priesthood, permanent diaconate, religious life and holy marriages in our diocese.

We will consider changing demographic trends and the available resources with which we have been entrusted and discern how we can best announce the Kingdom of God.

Like our Lent, the implementation of our strategic plan is not a diminishment but an opening to growth in the Holy Spirit. God calls us to ongoing conversion so as to open us to his will and the spread of the Good News.

Saints are the people who really change our world. By our Baptism we are all called to be saints. Lent at its core is about becoming the people we are meant to be in the mind of God.

Bishop Paul D. Sirba is the ninth bishop of Duluth.

Women’s conference tomorrow!

Just a quick reminder that the diocesan Women’s Conference is tomorrow! While online registration is now closed, walk-in registration will still be accepted. On-site registration is $40 and begins at 7:30 a.m, Due to the large volume of registrants, lunch and book are not guaranteed. Hope to see you there, and bring a friend.

Poll shows majority support for religious freedom in marriage debate

A recent Associated Press poll shows that while a plurality of Americans support the legalization of same-sex marriage, a majority believe that the religious liberty of those who object to such marriages, including owners of wedding-related businesses, should still be respected.

The poll, which was conducted between Jan. 1 and Feb. 2, shows that 44 percent of Americans favor legalization of same-sex marriage, 39 percent oppose it and 15 percent “neither favor nor oppose” legalization of such marriages.

Respondents also were asked this question: “In states where same-sex couples can be married legally, do you think that wedding-related businesses with religious objections should be allowed to refuse service to same-sex couples, or not?” Fifty-seven percent of those polled said that “they should be allowed to refuse service,” and only 39 percent said “no, they should not be allowed” to do so. Four percent refused to respond.

The poll’s results on legalizing same-sex marriage show “that support for the truth about marriage is too low and, thus, we all must renew our efforts at explaining what marriage is and why marriage matters,” said Ryan T. Anderson, William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at the Heritage Foundation.

“It’s not that people have heard the case for marriage and rejected it — it is just that they have never heard it,” he told Catholic News Service.

“The majority of Americans rightly recognize that everyone should be free from government penalties for believing and acting on the belief that marriage is the union of husband and wife,” Anderson said. “We must continue to defend our freedoms to speak and act in the public square in accord with the truth about marriage.”

The Catholic Church upholds marriage as a union between one man and one woman and teaches that any sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful. The church also teaches that homosexual attraction itself is not sinful and that homosexual people “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.”

The issue of whether a business owner has the right to refuse services to a same-sex couple came to the forefront of public discussion over two years ago when the owners of the Sweet Cakes by Melissa bakery in Gresham, Oregon, were threatened with fines of up to $150,000 for refusing to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple because of the owners’ religious beliefs.

Refusing the sale violated the Oregon Equality Act of 2007, which imposed a nondiscrimination order that prohibited businesses from refusing services based on a patron’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Following two years of subsequent lawsuits and the closing of their business, the former owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa were found guilty of discrimination, meaning they will face up to the maximum $150,000 fine.

The situation of Sweet Cakes illustrates the dilemma of Catholic employers who oppose providing certain services on the grounds that, according to church teaching, it would be a form of “material cooperation” with evil.

“The question of whether baking a cake for a same-sex wedding — to use an example in the news recently — constitutes a material — and therefore, culpable — cooperation (with) evil would depend on several circumstances, including intent,” said Stephen P. White, a fellow of Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “But even if such a case constituted remote cooperation — which might be permissible — there is no requirement to cooperate against the dictates of conscience. Just the opposite, in fact.”

“Thankfully,” said White, “most Americans understand that the burden of proof falls on those who would force their fellow citizens to violate their religious beliefs, not on those whose rights of conscience are protected by common sense, common decency, and, as it so happens, the Constitution.

In Oklahoma, lawmakers Feb. 12 approved a bill to protect clergy who refuse to preside over a same-sex wedding or to recognize a same-sex marriage. It passed by an 88-7 vote in the House of Representatives and now goes to the state Senate for consideration.

The measure would protect members of the clergy against same-sex marriage from being sued over their stance.

In Washington, U.S. Rep. Randy Weber and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, both Texas Republicans, introduced the State Marriage Defense Act of 2015 in their respective chambers. It would allow states to define marriage and block the federal government from imposing its definition of marriage on the states.

Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, sent letters to both lawmakers strongly supporting the measure.

Same-sex marriage is legal in 37 states and the District of Columbia. Eleven of those states legalized such unions either through either popular vote (three) or the state legislature (eight). For the rest, same-sex marriage has been legalized by court decisions. Thirteen states ban same-sex marriage — one by constitutional amendment and 12 by constitutional amendment and state law.

In April the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in four same-sex marriages cases it agreed to take — from Tennessee, Michigan, Kentucky and Ohio. The court is consolidating them into one hearing, tackling the questions of whether the 14th Amendment requires states to allow such marriages and whether it requires them to recognize same-sex marriages licensed in other states.

The AP poll, which was conducted by Gfk Public Affairs, showed an even split among Americans about whether the high court should rule that same-sex marriage must be legal nationwide — 48 percent said it should, but 48 percent said it should not.

The margin of error for the poll was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

— By Nate Madden / Catholic News Service

Martyrs in Libya ‘whispered’ name of Jesus before death, bishop says

The 21 Coptic Christians who were beheaded by Islamic State militants died as martyrs, invoking the name of Jesus, said an Egyptian Catholic bishop.

In line with Pope Francis’ assertion at morning Mass Feb. 17, Bishop Antonios Aziz Mina of Giza told the Fides news agency that the “diabolical” video of the Christians’ massacre, intended to “spread terror,” was a testament to their martyrdom in the faith.

The video of their beheading, released Feb. 15, shows that “in the moment of their barbaric execution,” some of the Christians were repeating the words “Lord, Jesus Christ,” he said.

“The name of Jesus was the last word on their lips,” said Bishop Mina. And like the early church martyrs, “they entrusted themselves to the one who would receive them soon after. That name, whispered in the last moments, was like the seal of their martyrdom.”

Following the news of their assassination in Libya, Christians in the various dioceses of Egypt began praying and fasting, as the government called for seven days of national mourning. Several Egyptian bishops have spoken about constructing churches, dedicated to the 21 martyrs, in their dioceses.

Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab announced President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi would arrange state funds for the construction of a church dedicated to the 21 martyrs in the Egyptian city of Minya, from which many of the victims hailed. In addition, by presidential decree, the victims’ families will receive financial compensation for the death of their loved ones (about $13,000), as well as a monthly stipend. The families are asking that the remains of their loved ones be returned to Egypt for burial.

Al-Sisi, who also has referred to the 21 Christians as “martyrs,” paid a personal visit to Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II Feb. 16 to extend his condolences. Pope Francis extended his condolences to Pope Tawadros in a phone call the same day.

Back in Libya, members of the Catholic community resolved to stay put, despite the killings and the emphatic calls from various authorities to evacuate the country.

“Few of us remain,” said Latin-rite Bishop Giovanni Martinelli of Tripoli, Libya. He told Fides, the news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Feb. 17 that many of those who remain are female Philippine nurses, who have decided to stay because of the dire medical needs in the city after the evacuation of the medical staff at the private St. James Hospital.

“It is for them that I remain,” the bishop said. “At this time, the situation is calm, but we do not know how things will evolve. Anyway, as I have said many times, so long as there is one Christian here, I will remain.”

— By Laura Ieraci / Catholic News Service

How Catholics, Lent, and bowls of rice are changing the world

Catholic Relief Services’ Rice Bowl program aims to continue its 40-year Lenten tradition of supporting hunger relief — and one of its past beneficiaries is now a spokesman for the project.

“Many years ago when I was a hungry boy in Ghana and living without parents or family, the smell of food lured me to the village school. There I was nourished and lifted off the path of likely death,” Thomas Awiapo said Jan. 16.

Bowl of rice

Credit: Steven Depolo via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

“That school food program existed because of the little box we call rice bowl.”

Awiapo was orphaned in his home country of Ghana before he was 10 years old. He credits a Catholic Relief Services-supported lunch program he discovered at age 12 with changing his life and the lives of his children.

“You can call me the poster child for CRS Rice Bowl, but we’d be closer to the truth if you called my children your poster children,” he said.

“They have never experienced hunger in their lifetime, and today they attend university, high school and secondary schools without missing a beat.”

Awiapo now works for Catholic Relief Services and trains community leaders throughout Ghana and is presently touring the U.S. to speak about the rice bowl program.

The mainstay of the program is a small cardboard box. Families and individuals, as well as parishes and schools, put in a small amount of money each day of Lent to help hunger relief around the world.

At present there are an unprecedented number of hunger emergencies in Syria, Iraq, Central African Republic and South Sudan, where war has caused interruptions to food supplies, unemployment and homelessness, forcing millions to live as refugees. Another food emergency is in West Africa, where the Ebola outbreak has been a major disruption to normal life.

Since its creation in 1975, CRS Rice Bowl has raised $250 million to fight hunger, the relief agency reports.

“CRS Rice Bowl offers families, schools and faith communities an opportunity to put their faith into action while learning about the lives and struggles of our brothers and sisters around the world,” said Beth Martin, the program’s director. “We’re encouraging people to reflect on what 40 years of CRS Rice Bowl has accomplished and challenging them to put one dollar for every day of Lent in their rice bowl.”

Last year the program added a new app to help people track their donations. The Rice Bowl app, available in English and Spanish, now has new Lenten reflections, integrated Twitter support and improved tracking for Lenten sacrifices.

Other new material for 2015’s rice bowl includes the “What is Lent?” video series. It will provide viewers with Lenten reflections from Catholics such as Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, and CRS President Carolyn Woo.

The CRS Rice Bowl Global Kitchen Video Series will feature television personality and cook Father Leo Patalinghug teaching how to cook five meatless recipes from the five countries in focus this year: Tanzania, Nicaragua, Niger, Lebanon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Catholic Relief Services has also prepared solidarity reflections to provide prayers and activities, for youth groups, high school classes, and young adults.

— Catholic News Agency / EWTN News

Return with tears to God’s loving embrace during Lent, pope says

Lent is a journey of purification and penance, a movement that should bring one tearfully back to the loving arms of the merciful Father, Pope Francis said at an Ash Wednesday Mass that began with a procession on Rome’s Aventine Hill.

After walking from the Benedictine monastery of St. Anselm to the Dominican-run Basilica of Santa Sabina Feb. 18, Pope Francis celebrated Mass. He received ashes on the top of his head from Cardinal Jozef Tomko, titular cardinal of the basilica, and distributed ashes to the Benedictines, the Dominicans, his closest aides and a family of five.

Pope celebrates Ash Wednesday Mass

Pope Francis uses incense during Ash Wednesday Mass at the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome Feb. 18. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

When a priest places ashes on one’s head or forehead, he recites: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

Both, Pope Francis said, are “a reminder of the truth of human existence: We are limited creatures, sinners always in need of repentance and conversion. How important it is to listen and accept these reminders.”

In his homily before the ashes were distributed, the pope encouraged Catholics to ask God for “the gift of tears in order to make our prayer and our journey of conversion more authentic and without hypocrisy.”

The day’s first reading, Joel 2:12-18, described the Old Testament priests weeping as they prayed that God would spare their people. “It would do us good to ask, do I cry? Does the pope cry? Do the cardinals? The bishops? Consecrated people? Priests? Do tears come when we pray?”

In the day’s Gospel reading (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18), Jesus warns his disciples three times against showing off the good works they do “like the hypocrites do.”

“When we do something good, almost instinctively the desire is born in us to be esteemed and admired for this good action, to get some satisfaction from it,” the pope said. But Jesus “calls us to do these things without any ostentation and to trust only in God’s reward.”

“Do you know something, brothers and sisters, hypocrites do not know how to cry,” the pope said. “They have forgotten how to cry. They don’t ask for the gift of tears.”

The Lenten call to conversion, he said, means returning “to the arms of God, the tender and merciful father, to cry in that embrace, to trust him and entrust oneself to him.”

During the 40 days of Lent, he said, Christians should make a greater effort to draw closer to Christ, which is why the church recommends the tools of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

But, he said, “conversion is not just a human work. Reconciliation between us and God is possible thanks to the mercy of the Father who, out of love for us, did not hesitate to sacrifice his only-begotten son.”

In the reading from Joel, the prophet calls people to “interior conversion,” the pope said, a conversion that requires a return to God “with your whole heart.”

“Please,” the pope said. “Let’s stop. Let’s pause a while and allow ourselves to be reconciled with God.”

Lent, he said, is time “to begin the journey of a conversion that is not superficial and transitory, but a spiritual itinerary” that goes straight to a person’s heart, the focal point “of our sentiments, the center in which our choices and attitudes mature.”

What is more, he said, the reading makes clear that the call is addressed to the whole community, which is to “proclaim a fast, call an assembly; gather the people, notify the congregation; assemble the elders, gather the children.”

Pope Francis prayed that Mary would accompany Christians in their “spiritual battle against sin” and would accompany them in their Lenten journey so they could exult with her at Easter.

— By Cindy Wooden / Catholic News Service

USCCB’s Lenten resources help Catholics raise up, sacrifice and offer

A variety of resources to help Catholics observe Lent, which began on Ash Wednesday, this year February 18, is being provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Lent graphicWith the theme “Raise Up. Sacrifice. Offer,” resources include video reflections on Lenten themes, a downloadable Lenten calendar with quotes from Pope Francis’ Message for Lent and other teachings and suggestions for taking an active approach to the three traditional pillars of Lenten observance: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Catholics are encouraged to raise up the needs of the world in prayer, to sacrifice by giving up food and material wants, and to offer time, talent and treasure as good stewards of their God-given gifts.

The website also includes facts about saints whose feast days or memorials fall within Lent, a reflection on fasting and information on rediscovering the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.

Pope Francis speaks about openness to life

In his general audience Feb. 11, Pope Francis spoke during his weekly general audience about societies that are selfish and unwilling to have children. His comments are making waves in the media, so as always, it's a good idea to hear what he had to say for yourself. A short video from Catholic News Service will help you do just that.

Catholics urged to remember ‘common good’ in vaccine debate

A nationwide measles outbreak that began at an amusement park in Southern California has fostered an ongoing debate about people's social obligation to have themselves and their children vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella and other diseases.

According to the latest figure from the Centers for Disease Control, the current outbreak has resulted in 121 cases in 17 states and the District of Columbia and raised anew concerns about parents who won't immunize their children for a variety of reasons.

Over the years, the Catholic Church has raised moral concerns about vaccines manufactured with human cell lines derived from voluntarily aborted fetuses.

It has urged Catholics to push for the development of morally acceptable vaccines, but in the absence of such alternatives has said Catholics must not reject immunizations and “sacrifice the common good of public health” or their children’s well-being.

Just six weeks into the new year, the United States already had a sixth of the total number of reported measles cases for 2014 — 644. The statistic is even more striking when compared to the number of reported cases from 2001 to 2011: The median number was 62.

The CDC’s website states that “in 2000, the United States declared that measles was eliminated from the country” as the result of “a highly effective measles vaccine, a strong vaccination program that achieves high vaccine coverage in children and strong public health system for detecting and responding to measles cases and outbreaks.”

But the drop in coverage could contribute to a possible re-establishment of measles in the U.S., according to the CDC. The drop could be caused by people who forget to get vaccinated, people who don’t know they need to be inoculated, or those who refuse to get the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, or MMR, and other vaccines “for religious, philosophical or personal reasons.”

“There are a lot of concerns regarding vaccines,” Dr. Paul Braaton, immediate past president of the Catholic Medical Association, told Catholic News Service. “Some of them may be overblown. The link with autism we now know came from some bad science and manipulated research out of England, but the problem is that the pharmaceutical companies didn’t adequately address these concerns as they came up.”

He was referring to a now-debunked — and retracted — study linking the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism in young children. That report, issued in 1998, led to a growing number of parents who refused to vaccinate their children against measles.

Apprehension about challenges posed to young children’s immune system by the “vaccine load” — the battery of injections suggested by a typical vaccination schedule — has prompted some parents to either space out immunizations or opt out of having their children immunized.

“It sounds scary when you think about it by itself,” said Dr. Andrew Bonwit, a specialist in pediatrics and infectious disease at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago.

“It is an immune challenge, but we face a host of immune challenges every single day, just by virtue of the world we live in,” Bonwit said, calling such apprehensions “an illogical concern.”

“The thing to remember is that these pathogens will never be removed from this world; they will continue to exist,” he continued, “so really it’s pretty much the difference between a parent who tries to teach their child to swim by throwing them in the deep end of the pool and hoping for the best and one who starts on the shallow end and works them to the other side gradually.”

Bonwit explained that “what people want is a 100 percent guarantee of something, but that doesn’t exist in science and medicine.”

Regarding accounts of children having adverse reactions to the battery of immunizations, he said that has happened in “extraordinarily rare circumstances.”

Compared to the “vast numbers of people who have been immunized with no adverse effects and the vast numbers whose lives have been saved,” he said, “the numbers are clearly and overwhelmingly in favor of vaccines.”

Still, there remains a legitimate ethical conundrum for Catholics regarding vaccines manufactured with human cell lines derived from voluntarily aborted fetuses.

In 2005, the Pontifical Academy for Life released a study titled “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared From Cells Derived From Aborted Human Fetuses” to assist those struggling with the moral implications of getting such vaccines.

The use of such vaccines, it said, carries out “a form of very remote mediate material cooperation” with evil, however practicing Catholics are permitted to use the vaccines, it said, in the absence of ethical alternatives.

The academy said Catholics have a responsibility to push for the creation of morally just, alternative vaccines, but it also said they should not to sacrifice the common good of public health and the well-being of young children and pregnant women because there is no substitute.

The academy finds “a proportional reason, in order to accept the use of these vaccines in the presence of the danger of favoring the spread of the pathological agent, due to the lack of vaccination of children” and that the “burden of this important battle” against injustice in the pharmaceutical industry “cannot and must not fall on innocent children and on the health situation of the population — especially with regard to pregnant women.”

The National Catholic Bioethics Center concurs with this position in a statement on its website.

“Upon use, one should register a complaint with the manufacturer of the products as an acceptable form of conscientious objection,” the statement says. “This signals opposition to the wider, morally reprehensible practice of using the unborn as little more than research material for science.”

“There is no moral obligation to register such a complaint in order to use these vaccines,” it says, adding that “it should be obvious that vaccine use in these cases does not contribute directly to the practice of abortion since the reasons for having an abortion are not related to vaccine preparation.”

In 2006, following a major mumps outbreak in the Midwest, Robert Saxer, then executive vice president of the Catholic Medical Association, said that “the bottom line is that vaccines derived from abortions should mainly be avoided and used only when alternatives are unavailable.”

“But there is really no reason why those alternatives should be unavailable,” he said. “The pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the vaccines have the ability and know-how to produce versions of these vaccines which do not depend on cell lines from aborted fetuses. ... They should be pressured to develop those vaccines to meet the health needs of those who have religious and ethical objections to abortion.”

However, the outlook for the creation of vaccines that would avoid such moral and ethical questions doesn’t look promising at the moment.

Dr. Kevin Donovan, pediatrician and director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University, said vaccines currently under development “are not being developed with that in mind.”

“Yes, there is a degree of material cooperation” with evil in the case of these vaccines, he said, “but it’s still sufficiently small and the benefits from immunization are sufficiently great” for the human person and the common good “that the person is morally justified in receiving immunization until such an alternative can be developed.”

Braaton echoed Donovan’s remarks, telling CNS: “Of course, if there is no other alternative to an unethically created vaccine, one can choose to use that vaccine, but that is the big concern. There has been no development of an alternative from the pharmaceutical industry.”

“We’re urged to put pressure on the companies to develop morally acceptable alternatives,” he added, “but I don’t know why they haven’t done that yet. Maybe there’s not enough public pressure; maybe it’s more beneficial to use the cell lines, I don’t know.”

Braaton said the Catholic Medical Association will continue to push for development of moral and ethical vaccine alternatives.

“We have grown and become better organized over the years as an organization,” he said, “and with that growth we can work better with other groups to put more effective public pressure on these companies. This issue will mostly likely be on the docket at our upcoming meeting in Dallas.”

“I also want to clarify that nobody at the Catholic Medical Association is against vaccines,” Braaton added. “We think that vaccination is a moral good, that it’s good for patients, and that it has benefited society greatly. We have a responsibility as moral agents to protect the common good and to immunize ourselves and our children against communicable disease.”

— Nate Madden / Catholic News Service

Father Richard Kunst: Ashes, of course, but there's more to get from Lent

Years ago one of my seminary professors cited a study listing the most well-attended Masses of the year. The first two were obvious -- Christmas and Easter -- but the third and fourth most attended Masses were a bit of a surprise to me at the time. They were Palm Sunday and Ash Wednesday.

I cannot remember the details of the study or who performed it, but after years of experience I must say I concur. My teacher followed up with a cynical comment, saying more people come to those Masses because they get something, namely palms on Palm Sunday and ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Father Richard Kunst

Father Richard Kunst

I am not sure that is completely true, but I would not be surprised if it is. Ash Wednesday is not even a "holy day of obligation," but don't tell nonreaders that!

Since Ash Wednesday is later this month, it might be good to look at the use of ashes and their history in our Catholic faith.

Jewish roots

Certainly our use of ashes comes from the Jewish faith, as so many of our practices do. We can look back at the Old Testament and see many examples of their use, and when they were used it was to signify one of two things, our mortality or penance for sins committed.

The distribution of ashes in our Catholic faith reflects this reality. Consider the two formulas we can choose when applying them to the faithful's forehead: The person distributing the ashes can say either "repent and believe in the Gospel," which has the theme of penance, or "remember, you are dust and to dust you will return," which represents our mortality.

Mortality has long been a theme in our Catholic tradition and art. As I have mentioned before, some of the most prominent decorative characteristics in old European parishes are skulls, crossbones and full skeletons. Imagine if your pastor were to have a large skeleton painted on the wall of your parish! But that is a very popular decoration in Europe. The purpose is to remind us of what the ashes remind us of today: We are dust.

The ordinary minister of the distribution of ashes is either the priest or a deacon. If necessary, a layperson is also permitted to distribute. The ashes used are either from the previous year's blessed palms or from an olive tree.

The Catholic Church has used ashes in its liturgy since at least as early as the tenth century, and of all the rich symbols we have in our faith, the ashes we apply on the first day of Lent are among the most powerful. But Ash Wednesday is only the start. This powerful symbol ushers in the holy season of Lent, which gives us a great opportunity to rely more on God and to get closer to him.

Add instead of give up?

During Lent, many if not most of us will "give something up" as a small penance to get into the spirit of the season, and that is completely laudable and even expected of us. But sometimes our energy in that direction can be misguided.

I once knew someone who quit eating all solid foods during the whole of Lent and only drank malts and energy drinks, all along making a big show of it. That is certainly not the purpose of the season or the fast.

Giving up something like sweets or soda can become an issue of pride or even bragging, which becomes counter-productive to what we are about during this time of year. If we are to use Lent to get closer to God, there might be a better way.

Adding things to our life and spirituality might be better than taking them away. It would be far better to have more people go to weekday Mass than to have fewer cookies eaten. It would be better to have more people go to the Stations of the Cross than to have less pop drunk.

We should be looking for extra things to enrich our faith during this time. Certainly our parishes offer more opportunities.

This is the busiest time of the year for us priests. I would challenge you not to have Ash Wednesday Mass be the only extra thing you do all Lent. Easter is the greatest and most beautiful day of the year on the Christian calendar. It becomes even more so when we put a lot into our Lenten observance.

"Without God, all that remains of man's greatness is that little pile of dust, in a dish, at one side of the altar, on Ash Wednesday. It is what the Church marks us with on our forehead, as though with our own substance." -- J. Leclercq, "A Year with the Liturgy"

Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Duluth and St. Joseph in Gnesen. Reach him at [email protected].