The Pope and the Ashes

Every Ash Wednesday, many Catholics and non-Catholics go to church to receive the ashes. There is something in the Catholic rite that draws believers and unbelievers.

What is it?

Somehow, the rite has been historically linked to the popes. In ancient times, Lent began on a Sunday. In the seventh century, Pope Gregory the Great’s liturgical reform had it begin on Ash Wednesday.

The imposition of ashes was first reserved to public penitents who asked to be reconciled with God and the Church during Lent. Acknowledging that all needed reconciliation, the Pope and the Roman clergy humbly asked for ashes as well. Shortly after, the faithful joined in the petition.

It became a tradition for the popes to receive ashes at the Basilica of Santa Sabina on Aventine Hill, not far from the Colosseum. The church was built by the priest Pietro Illirico during Pope Celestine I’s pontificate (422-432), upon some ancient house that was probably donated by a woman named Sabina. Historians don’t know the reason for the papal choice of this church.

The ceremony at Santa Sabina was preceded by a procession from Santa Atanasia. It took an effort to climb the slope that links the two churches, and the climbing was, perhaps, what suggested the choice of Santa Sabina. The Lenten journey is supposed to be a climb toward spiritual perfection.

Following such an ancient and evocative tradition, Pope John Paul II celebrated the Ash Wednesday Mass at Santa Sabina every year of his pontificate until 2004. Due to his physical condition, last year he presided over the Ash Wednesday Liturgy of the Word at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Wearing bright, purple-blue vestments, John Paul bowed his head to receive the ashes from Secretary of State and Cardinal Angelo Sodano. From a certain distance, you could spot some little black dots on the Pope’s white hair.

It was a moving, significant picture.

“Receiving the ashes on the head,” the Pope explained in his 2003 Ash Wednesday homily, “means recognizing that we are creatures, made of earth and destined to return to it (Genesis 3:19); it also means proclaiming that we are sinners, in need of God’s pardon in order to be able to live according to the Gospel (Mark 1:15); finally, it means reviving our hope in the definitive encounter with Christ in the glory and peace of heaven.”

As the leader of the Church, the Pope must be the first to recognize himself as an earthly creature, as a sinner begging for mercy and as a person called to live with God forever.

“Delved into the depth of today’s liturgy,” the Holy Father said in his 1979 Ash Wednesday homily, “I, John Paul II, bishop of Rome, say to you, Jesus Christ, together with all my brothers and sisters in the only faith of your Church, together with all the brothers and sisters of the immense human family: ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions’ (Psalm 51).”

The imposition of the ashes reminds us of the fragility of our existence and the need of conversion. As he places ashes on the foreheads of the faithful, the celebrant says either “You are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19) or “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).

Such a symbolic action, the Pope said last year, “emphasizes the awareness of sinners as they stand before the majesty and holiness of God. At the same time, it demonstrates readiness to accept and to transform into concrete choices adherence to the Gospel.”

John Paul will look physically frail as he receives the ashes this year on Feb. 9 at St. Peter’s Basilica. He will also show his characteristic desire to follow Christ’s footsteps and be with him forever in heaven.

Fragility, conversion, hope for eternal glory — this is the threefold message Christ’s vicar will convey to us on Ash Wednesday. Let us begin the climbing of our Lenten journey with the Pope’s sentiments and convictions. Our ashes, then, will be meaningful.

Legionary of Christ Father Alfonso Aguilar teaches philosophy at Regina Apostolorum Pontifical College in [email protected]