There’s “something about the ashes” that mark the start of Lent, said Archbishop Nelson J. Perez during his Ash Wednesday homily at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.

(Read Archbishop Perez’s pastoral message on the season of Lent.)

Addressing some 2,000 attendees of all ages at the Feb. 26 Mass, Archbishop Perez observed that the annual season of preparation for Holy Week and Easter “begins with the simple and yet profoundly moving imposition of ashes.”

He added that “we all come out of the woodwork for this day,” noting Ash Wednesday’s appeal to inactive Catholics and Christians from other denominations, who help to make Lent’s initial liturgy one of the most well-attended of the entire year.

(Listen to Archbishop Nelson Perez’s homily during the Feb. 26 Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.)

A symbol of repentance in the Hebrew Scriptures, ashes were known to be distributed among all the faithful (rather than select penitents) since at least the eighth century, according to ancient manuscripts.

Along with prayer, fasting and almsgiving, the ashes signal the start of “a very special time of grace and blessing,” said Archbishop Perez.

“It is a time to pray a little bit more, it is a time to give things up – not for the thing itself, but as a sacrifice of love – and it is a time to give to others,” he said.


Archbishop Perez cited Catholic Relief Services’ (CRS) Rice Bowl campaign – a Lenten initiative that addresses poverty both globally and locally – as one “way of giving.”

“The poor are all around us,” he said. “They might be materially poor, they might be spiritually poor. They also include you and me as well.”

While “the story and the message of Lent continues to be the same,” said Archbishop Perez, “what changes is where you and I find ourselves” with each successive Lent.

That aspect of the season is “a wonderful question to ponder,” he said, inviting the faithful to reflect on their relationships with the Lord, the church, family, friends and even themselves.

Ultimately, the Lord seeks “a contrite heart” from each individual, said Archbishop Perez.

Reminding those present that the word “Lent” derives from an Old English word for “springtime,” the Archbishop said that the “incredible season of grace and blessing” is an opportunity for spiritual “spring cleaning” and “(putting) things back in their place.”

“And that’s what the work of Lent is for all of us, as we all prepare to renew our baptismal promises, and our commitment to Christ as disciples of Christ,” he said.

Following the Mass, Archbishop Perez individually greeted dozens of attendees as they exited the Cathedral, shaking hands, posing for several photographs and recognizing several familiar faces from his years as a Philadelphia priest.

Reminded that he had celebrated one participant’s wedding, the Archbishop asked if the man was still married.

On hearing that he was, Archbishop Perez replied with a smile, “That’s great – I’m glad it stuck.”