After years of frustration about Ash Wednesday services, Saint Bonaventure Church in Allegany changed the process and began presenting the day as a parish day of prayer. Richard Husted shares how the church made the day more amenable to people’s schedules.
ALLEGANY, N.Y. — As a priest, Ash Wednesday was never a favorite day of mine. For years, I found myself getting annoyed at people who never came to church during the year, but insisted on getting ashes. No doubt, every priest has his own stories about Ash Wednesday. Several years ago, I decided enough was enough. If you can’t change people, change the procedure, so that’s what we did at Saint Bonaventure Church here.
I began by describing Ash Wednesday as a parish day of prayer. The staff was made available for 14 hours during the day. We asked parishioners to spend one hour in quiet prayer during the day. Each of the 14 hours had an intention placed at the 14 Stations of the Cross, which remained throughout Lent.
These intentions were for those who were terminally ill, homebound, homeless, unborn, refugees, abused, addicted, lonely, hungry, exploited, elderly, bereaved, discriminated against and imprisoned. We assembled a booklet of 14 modern-day heroes for each of the intentions. These booklets were given to anyone who came to church that day. The 14 intentions were then used as the Prayer of the Faithful during Lent and prayed in an expanded format on Good Friday.
Confession time was also available during the 14 hours of the day, except for when the two Masses were celebrated. After a few years of offering the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we made Ash Wednesday a time for First Penance for our children. A parent brought his or her child and introduced the child to who was hearing confessions. As a way of keeping track of the children who made first Penance, the confessor accepted the workbook from the parent and gave the child a cross as a symbol of the sacrament. The response for this unique way to celebrate First Reconciliation was met with great enthusiasm from parents and teachers. It allowed parents to present their children at a time that was convenient for them. It also allowed the confessor to spend relaxing time with each child without feeling pressed by a waiting crowd.
Two Masses/Hourly Prayer Services
We offered two Masses at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Contrary to ritual, ashes were given out at the end of Mass and at the end of the prayer service so people could leave after they received ashes. At every hour, a staff member led a 15-minute prayer service with distribution of ashes. Each member gave a short reflection, along with the blessing of ashes and scripture reading.
A gift was given to remind people of the theme for the season of Lent. One year it was a wooden nickel with the words “change our hearts” on it. Another year it was a key and keychain with the theme of “come home.”
We provided a place where ashes could be taken and brought to someone. This eliminated people coming in the middle of the hour seeking a private blessing. Greeters at the door invited hurried persons to take an envelope. This avoided trying to explain the whole purpose of the day to someone with little interest.
Powerful Reminder of Prayer
We have found that beginning the season of Lent with this parish day of prayer is a powerful way to remind everyone that quiet prayer is at the heart of the season. It uses a day when people have a sense of doing something special to begin Lent. Effort has been made to also have a reflection book that could be used each day during Lent.
Our Outreach Committee added another dimension of the day, providing a fish-and-chips dinner. This fundraiser was a way of supporting our efforts for the poor and a reminder that Ash Wednesday is a day of fast and abstinence.
The staff found the day tiring, but truly worthwhile. People commented how grateful they felt to choose any time of day to receive ashes, reflect and pray.
As exhausting as the day is, I look forward now to Ash Wednesday as a parish day of prayer. One suggestion: plan a day off for yourself following Ash Wednesday.
–Fr. Richard is pastor of St. Bonaventure Church, Allegany, N.Y.