Some of the loudest lamentations of this penitential season come not from the laity, but from the clergy. Specifically, the churches packed on Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday when people who don’t darken a church door all year arrive, “to get something for free.”
I understand their frustration and also see within it a missed opportunity, especially on Ash Wednesday. More on that in a moment. Here are some happenings from a friend’s parish yesterday.
One of my friends who is a pastor has decided to tie the distribution of ashes to the mass. When one of the priests distributed ashes after the homily, more than 60% of the Church cleared out before the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
At another mass, when ashes were to be distributed after mass had ended, a man came up the communion line and when the host was extended to him replied, “I don’t want that. I’m here for ashes.” (At that mass, everyone stayed for the entire mass in order to receive ashes at the end.)
What was missing there, and at a great many churches yesterday, was the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I’ve often heard it said that it would be too much all in one day. I disagree.
Perhaps tying the reception of ashes to the Sacrament of Reconciliation wouldn’t be a bad idea. Perhaps through a penance service. Yesterday, I saw a church packed to the rafters (literally) sit through an entire noon mass in order to receive their ashes.
What is needed is a stemwinder of a homily on the Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell. Tying that in with the opportunity in the present moment to receive another free gift, God’s forgiveness and mercy, might not be a bad way to go. Having several priests on hand to hear confessions (doable in most areas with a little creativity) might well yield surprising results.
It might also be beneficial to offer Reconciliation at times that dovetail more with contemporary schedules than the 1930′s Saturday afternoon-only.
There is something that draws such crowds on Ash Wednesday, a spark that needs to be gently nurtured into something a bit brighter and more intense. It’s easy to become discouraged and even cynical. However, many of these people will not be seen for another year, and what holds them back is the power of guilt and sin.
We must encounter them not on the terms of our predilections, but where they are at in their journey. If Ash Wednesday is the only day of the year they can be expected to be in Church, then we should be waiting with what they need most: