First, what this is not: This article does not argue that we must hold Ash Wednesday services as usual, nor does it argue that scattering ashes on Ash Wednesday is perfectly licit and no one who really understands the Catholic faith can object. Instead, it argues that lack of planning ahead and understanding what’s at stake—something dating to long before this pandemic—will make the loss of “real ash” on Ash Wednesday catastrophic if we, and our exhausted Church leaders, don’t see what’s as plain as the noses on our faces. Americans, not just Catholic Americans, love Ash Wednesday. And no one takes it well when you kill what he loves.
Let’s go back a bit. Once upon a time, we are told, the Church was large and triumphant and Catholics enjoyed a plethora of colorful but long-outdated devotional practices. People prayed passels of novenas, bought tacky statues and wore tacky medals, attended odd processions and made odd pilgrimages, and visited shrines as if they couldn’t pray right where they were. And then, at the midst of a general high point for religious practice in America, intellectuals in the Church discovered these devotions were unnecessary, even superstitious. They took the place of Mass in the minds of many, or at least they hogged the stage. Mass should be central in our lives, and devotions were getting in the way. Out went the devotions, the processions, the First Fridays, the Forty Hours. In was supposed to come a renewed love for the Mass, stripped of its mystery and Latin and special music. Everyone would participate fully, actively, and with enthusiasm.
How’s that working out for us?
This is not a plea to return to the Extraordinary Form. I attend a beautiful, devout Mass in English and, God willing, will continue doing so. No, there are many explanations for the plummet in Mass attendance among Catholics, and the abandonment of religious faith in America in general. It’s likely that many explanations are true at once—as in all things human, loops of cause and effect interact in ways too complicated to unravel. But the gradual return of devotions tells us that, far from distracting people from what’s most important, they teach and reinforce it. They do this by filling life with a variety of related practices that appeal to people of all different personalities, ages, and states of life. Few, it turns out, head to an impoverished celebration of Mass for an hour a week, not when the other 167 hours are empty of faith.
Would you drive ten minutes to visit a rose, rare and precious and the only one of its kind, in the center of a vast flat field of grass? Perhaps, if you had some extra time and were in the neighborhood, or you had a special interest in flowers. But almost everyone spends part of his year visiting gardens, and many grow their own. Those devoted to horticulture travel and pay hard-earned money to visit botanical gardens full of rare and exotic plants. People in cities grow plants on apartment balconies. Estates, resorts, and theme parks grow extensive gardens; millions enjoy parks, walk through plantings outside office buildings or in lobbies, or simply enjoy the landscaping from the window of a restaurant. The more people love something, the more of it they tend to have.
It turns out that you can’t strip too much away without driving people away. And it turns out that people love their devotionals, and we throw them away at our peril. It is far harder to rebuild than it is to destroy, and while return to devotion seems probable, maybe it’s not. Perhaps only the people who most love devotions are left now, and they’ll fade away too. Who’s to say? I’m no prognosticator.
But I am a person who can see what’s in front of me, and what I see is the same thing happening all over again. Like it or not (and a surprising number of people don’t) one of the most popular things associated with the Catholic faith in the United States has become Ash Wednesday. Millions love it. People who never darken a church door even for Easter or Christmas come out for ashes. Christians of all stripes come to Catholic churches for ashes, or they hold their own services. People with no faith at all ask for ashes when they’re being distributed in nursing homes and hospitals. Catholics go to church early in the morning and vie to have the biggest, darkest “ash cross” on their foreheads for the day.
Today’s Catholic intelligentsia (and they run the gamut from “traditional Catholics” to the “Spirit of Vatican II” set) have been sniffing at them for years now, especially since the advent of social media and the “ashtag hashtag”: These people aren’t really Catholic! They’re delighting in something that isn’t even a sacrament! They don’t know their faith, they just want to show off!
Now, we are told, we must have our ashes scattered over us this year, instead of drawn on our foreheads. Dismay was immediately met with derision: “It’s how they do it in lots of other countries, isn’t that good enough for you? Do you want to be Catholic, or do you want to be seen to be Catholic?”
This is the answer Catholics have been getting for fifty years: Can’t you be Catholic in your heart? Can’t you be satisfied with the Mass—which really is everything, after all? Can’t you have a clear understanding of every doctrine and belief I personally think is important? Aren’t you strong enough to have the faith of a martyr for an hour of “church” a week and whatever personal prayer and reading time you happen to figure out, master, and fit into a life that demands you are busy every minute?
No. The answer is no, most people aren’t that strong. Fifty years of demanding people develop interior strength without exterior help has shown that. Most people are not strong enough to have or maintain faith in the postmodern age, and the new practices people once thought would strengthen them didn’t do the job. Maybe the leaders who ushered them in really thought those practices would work. Maybe the cynics among us are right, and those leaders really wanted to destroy the faith. What happened then doesn’t matter as much as what we do now. Let’s not throw away, without even a thought, one of the few strong traditions we have left.
It may be that this year we should make an unwelcome change in what has become, like it or not, the most universally beloved public practice of the Catholic Church in the United States. I have my own opinion about that, but it means nothing, because fifty state governments and fifty bishops’ councils, countless local authorities, the USCCB, and perhaps the federal government will weigh in. But if we can’t have it, for goodness’ sake, let’s not scorn the people who want it. Don’t call them names because they want something they sense, perhaps without being able to say why, is supremely important. Don’t tell them their faith isn’t strong enough because they want a tangible, visible, and communal reminder that death is inevitable, that God is real, and that salvation is possible. Don’t call them show-offs because they don’t just want ashes, they also want people to see the ashes. They want to be witnesses, don’t shame them for it.
If we have to give it up this year, we must not say, “Good riddance! All the shallow people will stay home for once, and we pristine few will be left in peace to a perfectly licit liturgical celebration that we, the educated, understand is exactly the same.” Of course, no one would say it that way. But we mustn’t say it at all. We must explain what will happen instead, but with regret, with sorrow, with understanding that this practice is important to people and touches their souls. Their souls, not our enlightened preferences, are the whole point of our churches, our devotions, our liturgy committees, our parish councils, our clergy, and our “faith formation programs.” We must promise that next year will be different. We should learn from our elder brothers, the Jews, that a promise (“next year, in Jerusalem”) can keep faith alive when a bloodless statement from the diocese (“sprinkling is licit and the norm in many countries”) cannot.
The response to the pandemic from both our bishops and elected leaders has revealed what is important in post-Christian America. Faith is number 100 out of 100, if it’s on the list at all. We’ve done what we were told, at first out of understandable terror, and later out of adherence to questionable public health policies. We gave up Easter, despite our professing it to be our holiest celebration, with few objections. Many of us gave up Christmas. On the liturgical calendar, Ash Wednesday is nothing compared to them. But in the popular imagination, in what remains of popular devotional practice, Ash Wednesday is Catholicism in all its weirdness and glory.
If we don’t understand that and respond accordingly, we are far, far along the road to losing our faithful, and our faith, altogether.
[Photo Credit: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images]