26 February 2009

Ash Wednesday and Lent

Yesterday I had two Ash Wednesday Masses, one in the chapel across the road from where I live and where I celebrate Mass from Tuesday to Saturday, the other at Holy Family Home, run by the Capuchin Tertiary Sisters of the Holy Family, for girls who come from dangerous or deprived situations. For the first time in years I used the traditional ‘Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return’ rather than ‘Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel’ (Mk 1:15).

Each Lent I remember growing up in Dublin in the ‘50s and the packed churches every morning of Lent, workers and students, all going to daily Mass without anyone forcing them to. Now the churches in Ireland are bereft of adolescents and young adults on Sundays.

I don’t know why there has been such a colossal falling away from the faith in the last 40 years. What I do know is that there was much more participatio actuosa, or active participation, in the Mass when I was young than now, when there is often more activity, but less participation. In the 1980s a classmate of mine, the late Fr Desmond Hartford, was appointed apostolic administrator of the Prelature of Marawi in Mindanao, one of very few church jurisdictions in the Philippines with a majority of Muslims – about 95 percent. A group of us went to meet him at the airport in Cagayan de Oro. Father Des had made it clear that he wanted a ‘low-key welcome’. Due to a miscommunication he didn’t arrive at all and one of my companions said ‘You can’t get more low-key than that’.

Well you can’t get lower participation in Mass when nobody attends.

One of my memories from my young days is the ‘acclamation of faith’ after the consecration and elevation. It wasn’t called such nor mentioned in the rubrics but it was a powerful expression of faith – the cough of the whole congregation releasing its tension knowing that something truly awesome had just happened.

Father Desmond replaced Bishop Bienvenido Tudtud, who died in a plane crash in 1987 and who, with the full encouragement and blessing of Pope Paul VI, pioneered what he called ‘Dialogue of Life’ between Christians and Muslims in an area where there had been centuries of hostility and sometimes outright war. He started Duyog Ramadan, ‘Accompanying Ramadan, to heighten the awareness of Christians about the holy season of Muslims and to ask them to pray for them. Since then some attempt has been made, I think, to encourage Muslims to engage in a form of Duyog Cuaresma, or ‘Accompanying Lent’.
But surely there’s an anomaly when, on the one hand, we have become more aware of the religious practices of others and are respectful of them, but, on the other hand, we have ditched our own. The Lenten fast means little now, though I was pleasantly surprised while in Britain from 2000 to 2002 that there was still some awareness of Lent as a Christian observance.

We know that Muslims and Jews don’t eat pork and we would never offer it to them. But in our ‘wisdom’ we have dropped Friday abstinence, a common act of penance throughout the year that was universal except, I think, in the former Spanish Empire, where there had been a dispensation.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput OFMCap, in his homily for last Sunday – you can find the link to the audio here - reminds his people that going out for lobster on Friday during Lent is not quite in the spirit of Lenten abstinence.

However, as this morning’s readings (Thursday) remind us, we can still choose to make Lent a time for personal renewal and for the renewal of the whole Church as we prepare to celebrate the Resurrection.

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