I found myself near Charlotte, North Carolina around lunchtime on Ash Wednesday. I was right next to St. Matthew Catholic Church. Since they were having a 12:10 service, I decided to go. I've been to Ash Wednesday services at Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, but never at a Catholic one. I'm glad I went. A few observations:
The church is huge. I went to a friend's wedding at a huge Baptist church in Dallas, Texas that was bigger, but this was a close second. Our church seats around 200 to 250 (and we're lucky if we're averaging 110 these days), so this was a big change for me. The service I went to was one of four or five that day and it was pretty full, so I'm sure they have a big crowd on Sundays. The logistics of dealing regularly with that many people must be pretty daunting, but I thought they handled everything pretty well. People seemed friendly enough, but no one went out of their way to speak to me. Of course, some of that was my fault, since I was in a little bit of a hurry to leave due to work isssues.
Only two clergy, one Priest and one Deacon, participated in the service. This meant that most of the distribution of ashes and later of the Eucharist was done by lay people. I don't know if this was due solely to the service being one of several that day or if this is the usual pattern here due to a shortage of clergy. This didn't bother me at all, but it certainly contradicts the notion of the Catholic Church being run solely by Priests. I don't see how in the world a church this size could be run without most of the work being done by laypeople.
At the Protestant Ash Wednesday services I've attended, the ashes were imposed with the minister saying something along the lines of "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return." At St. Matthew's we were told something like "Repent and believe the Gospel." (I may not have that exactly right, it's been a few days.) I found the difference in emphasis (mortality vs. penitence) thought provoking. Do they always say this at Catholic churches or do they alternate what is said? And when the Eucharist was distributed, it was only given in one form. Is it the usual practice to omit the wine?
Anyway, I'm glad I went. In the midst of our transition in leadership at my church, we did not have an Ash Wednesday service this year. Though perhaps quite appropriately, the first Sunday after our minister has left is the first Sunday of Lent. It was a service and message I needed to hear.