By Christie L. Chicoine

CS&T Staff Writer

Ash Wednesday is March 9. Although not a holy day of obligation for Catholics, the solemn observance signifies the beginning of Lent for Christians throughout the world.

Lent is the penitential season of prayer, fasting and almsgiving from Ash Wednesday through Holy Thursday in preparation for Easter.

Lent is also the time for catechumens – those who have not been baptized – to prepare for the Easter sacraments of baptism, confirmation and the holy Eucharist.

The 40-day period of Lent culminates with the Easter Triduum beginning Holy Thursday evening, April 21. Easter Sunday is celebrated on April 24 this year. {{more}}

The fact that Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation can be confusing to some. “Typically, holy days of obligation are solemnities within the Church calendar, focusing on events in the life of Christ and His Blessed Mother,” said Father G. Dennis Gill, director of the archdiocesan Office for Worship.

“Ash Wednesday does not have this rank of solemnity. Catholics are encouraged to observe it, especially with Mass, because it inaugurates the season of Lent,” he added.

“Ashes focus on us and our communion with Jesus, but a solemnity is about Jesus or Mary.”

On Ash Wednesday, the priest celebrating the Mass or liturgy of the Word blesses the ashes which are then marked in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of the faithful by the pastor, another priest or a deacon. Extraordinary ministers of holy Communion may also assist with the distribution of ashes.

The symbolic ashes serve as a reminder to the faithful of their mortality.

“In a time when our society calls for more visible signs of who we are, the imposed ashes speak eloquently to ourselves and to others that everything the Christian does is marked by the sign of the cross.”

Ashes are to be distributed at Mass or during a liturgy of the Word, said Father Gill. “Ashes should never be distributed alone because the sign makes no sense apart from the announcement of the invitation to turn away from sin that comes from hearing the Word of God,” he said.

“As with every celebration of the Mass – even on Ash Wednesday – it is important to be there from the beginning until the end. The ashes, certainly in no way, displace the significance and importance of hearing the Word of God and celebrating the saving sacrifice of Jesus in the Eucharist.”

The Bishops of the United States set, as minimal obligation, that all persons who are 14 years of age and older abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday, on all the Fridays of Lent and Good Friday.

Further, all persons 18 years of age and older, up to and including age 59, should fast by limiting themselves to a single full meal on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday.

“Now is the time to begin thinking of how we are going to join in the penance on the part of the whole Church by our own penance during the season of Lent,” Father Gill said.

“We should give serious consideration to what we need to do in our lives to truly turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. We need to see what we need to do to help change our lives.

“Perhaps we have to watch our tongue, set time aside to pray or be more conscious of good example,” continued Father Gill.

“If we’re doing the very same things we did as children for Lent, perhaps we need to reassess … so that it is a mature and more adult experience.

“No matter how small the sacrifice might be – if it’s that of a child giving up candy or that of an adult avoiding the occasion of sin that might be television or conversation – and it’s united to the offering of Jesus, it will bear fruit in our holiness and the holiness of the Church,” Father Gill said.

CS&T Staff Writer Christie L. Chicoine may be reached at 215-587-2468 or

Ash Wednesday at the Cathedral

Ash Wednesday Masses March 9 at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul,
18th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Center City Philadelphia:
7:15 a.m.
12:05 p.m.
12:35 p.m.
5:00 p.m.
Ashes will be distributed during the Masses.

For more information, visit the web site or call the Cathedral office at 215-561-1313.