The Season of Lent, in a sense, is the Church’s way of saying, “Come back home again.” It’s not just our chance to come home to our parish again, if we’ve been away, but it’s also our chance to come home again to who we are and to who God is calling us to be: sons, daughters and children of God. Lent is our opportunity, more than any other time of the year in parish ministry, to be “fishers” of men, women, the elderly, youth and children for Jesus and for the Kingdom because there’s a part of people that wants to come home again. Now is the time.
In most parishes, Lent starts out strongly with people coming for ashes on Ash Wednesday. This is even more the case here at La Luz Parish in Guadalupe, Nuevo Leon, and in other parishes where there are people from México. In many ways, Ash Wednesday is the biggest day of the year for Mexican Catholics. It’s the day when throngs of people, many of who normally don’t come to Sunday Mass, descend upon their local parishes and chapels seeking that little cross of ashes on their foreheads.
I’ve asked many people why Mexicans value their ashes on Ash Wednesday so much. There are so many different responses. Maybe it’s the connection that Ash Wednesday has with death? One of the formulas that we can say while imposing the ashes is: “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” This formula would speak well to Mexicans for whom death is much more a part of life than it is in other cultures.
Maybe it’s simply a custom? It’s Ash Wednesday, so we have to get our ashes. Maybe it’s a sense that I haven’t done so well with God lately but at least I’m getting my ashes and am okay with God for another year? Maybe it’s an expression, as we would hope, of a true inner desire to change one’s ways and embrace Jesus and the Gospel more fully? Whatever the case, there’s something that the people are seeking.
Here at La Luz Parish, we try to use all of the opportunities that we have with people to help them encounter Christ and His love for them. Ash Wednesday and Lent are gifts to us in terms of the pastoral opportunities that they provide for people who have turned away from God and maybe the Church as well. There’s no telling how a warm welcome on Ash Wednesday, a reminder that God loves them and a message that’s a mixture of encouragement, inspiration and challenge will touch the hearts and affect the lives of those who come for their ashes.
During Lent, more people come as well to confess their sins. This is a moment of grace for all who come, but it can be a monumental moment in their lives if it’s been years, if not decades, since their last confession. We’re blessed to have the opportunity to celebrate with these people the love, mercy and forgiveness of Jesus, remembering that there is “more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine righteous people.”
We’re blessed to be able to welcome our people home again on many levels and to welcome them to join us in pursing all that the second formula for ashes on Ash Wednesday expresses: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”
Fr. John Herman, C.S.C., is the Pastor of Nuestra Madre Santísima de la Luz Parish, in Guadalupe, Nuevo Leon, México. He professed Final Vows in the Congregation of Holy Cross on August 27, 1994 and was ordained to the priesthood on April 22,1995. Fr. John is a regular contributor to the Spes Unica Blog, writing about his work at our parish there. Learn more about the missionary work of the United States Province in México and around the world.