Saturday, February 9, 2008

Ash Wednesday at a Catholic Church

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.


Will Duquette said...

There are two things you might hear while receiving the ashes: the one you heard on Wednesday, and the one you're used to hearing. I guess it's up to the priest which you'll hear.

Karen said...

The priest can use either the "You are dust..." or the "repent..." line. Being pretty new to this, I have no idea which is more common. At my parish I heard the dust one.

As for the Eucharist being distributed in only one form, I know at my parish that is how it is done for week day masses. My guess is this has something to do with logistics. Attendance isn't quite as consistent on week days, so rather than running out of the Precious Blood, or having a lot left that would have to be consumed since it can't be reserved, the distribute only the Body of Christ.

MHL said...

Thanks for the responses. I meant to note one other thing, but forgot. I once again saw the diversity of the Catholic Church.

The church I attended is in a real high dollar suburb of Charlotte. Lots of super expensive houses with big SUVs in the driveway. Despite this, there still appeared to be more diversity than at my church, where lots of poor non-white folks live within sight of our front door.