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A Time for Repentance

Written by Pat Howell, S.J.
March 1, 2011

Ash Wednesday takes place March 9.  If the past is any indicator, the Chapel of St. Ignatius will have a steady stream of students, faculty, staff, and visitors to receive ashes on their foreheads as a sign of inner repentance.This strangely popular feast also inaugurates the season of Lent, the forty days preparation for the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

Originally called dies cinerum (day of ashes), Ash Wednesday begins as early as Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) as an observance for the whole Catholic Church.

The Church already had an Order of Penitents, parallel to the Order of Catechumens. This penitential order was only for the most severe sins, such as adultery, apostasy (the denial of one’s faith), and murder. All these resulted in alienation from the community of faith.  

At the end of a period as long as two years, in which the penitent might dress in sack cloth and be covered with ash, he or she was received back into the church by the bishop. This form of reconciliation could be done only once. 

Later Irish monks modified the Sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation so that it covered a wider range of sins, was more accessible to everyone, and often took on the form of in-depth spiritual direction.At the same time the penitential practice of receiving ashes was taken up by the whole Church as a very appropriate sacramental devotion to prepare for Easter.   

The reception of ashes obviously resonates deeply with the faithful’s sense of the need for repentance, for reconciliation and for a fresh, new beginning in one’s journey with Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit. 

Four Ash Wednesday liturgies will take place at SU on March 9 in the Chapel of St Ignatius, including Masses at 7 a.m., noon and 7:30 p.m., and an ecumenical liturgy at 4:30 p.m.

  
Pat Howell, S.J., is rector of the Arrupe Jesuit Residence at Seattle University.