Ash Wednesday 2011: Welcoming Lent with penitence for some, scandal for others

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Compiled by Ian Saleh
Washington Post Staff
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 2:30 PM

Ash Wednesday began the season of Lent, and Catholics around the world marked the day with ritual ashes and fasting. As Danielle Bean explained:

I like to think of Ash Wednesday as a kind of Catholic "coming out" day in our country. Suddenly, I can readily recognize those sportscasters, grocery clerks, and mailmen who share my faith by the smudges of ashes on their foreheads.

Distribution of Ashes

They're not really smudges, though. They're crosses. And reminders. On Ash Wednesday, the first day of the penitential season of Lent, we mark ourselves with ashes, with the symbol of the cross, as a visual means of recalling that we are sinners in need of a savior, that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

The ashes used in churches on this day are made from the burned palm leaves from the previous Palm Sunday. When the priest marks our foreheads with the ashes, he says, "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19) or "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel" (Mark 1:15).

As the season of Lent begins many mark its passage by abstaining from certain behavoir. As Melissa Bell explained:

The 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter (the 40 days of Lent do not count the six Sundays) mark a time when worshipers forgo something to honor the sacrifice of Jesus during his 40 days in the desert.

Catholic or not, it's a good time to practice a little self-restraint. It's like a New Year's resolution in miniature. A whole year without chocolate seems impossible. Forty days? That's more practical (though not practical enough: during the last Lent I failed that within three days).

The practice has moved away from just sacrifice to starting up a new habit, such as charity work, or breaking an old habit, such as abstaining from the digital world.

This year, I'll be turning off my e-mail after work ends. I'll sacrifice my digital addiction in the hopes of recognizing the real world a little.

Ash Wednesday was a darker day for some. As Elizabeth Tenety reported:

Tuesday may have been Mardi Gras for many in the Christian world, but in Catholic America, Tuesday brought a much graver reality: In a mass suspension, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia placed 21 active priests on administrative duties due to what the New York Times characterized as "credible accusations of sexual abuse or inappropriate behavior toward minors."

After a February grand jury report that "identified 37 cases of concern," Cardinal Justin Rigali, Archbishop of Philadelphia, ordered an investigation into the accused priests in his diocese. (This was after the cardinal insisted that there were no predator priests in active ministry.) Per the investigation's recommendations, Rigali said in a statement, the 21 were placed on leave "to allay concerns in the community about the suitability of priests to minister."

Catholic Church insider and Whispers in the Loggia blogger Rocco Palmo said the move was the "largest single suspension of priests in the history of the Stateside church."

More from The Washington Post

On Faith: Rep. Peter King's Muslim hearing

World: Pope Benedict XVI receives ashes atop head in penitence rite

On Faith: Sex and the Anti-economics of love


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