Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Evangelization on Ash Wednesday

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 24, 2023

Year after year, Catholic churches are crowded on Ash Wednesday. Crowded churches: sadly, an unusual phenomenon, but one toward which we should aspire. So what should we learn from Ash Wednesday?

Msgr. Charles Pope suggests one important lesson, in a blog post entitled Ash Wednesday Breaks All the Rules of Modern Churchthink. On this one day of the year, if you venture into any ordinary Catholic church, you will not hear a cheery upbeat message. You will be told that you are going to die. You will be reminded that how you live your life is a serious matter; you will face judgment.

Along with the sobering reminder of death, delivered in a simple message that we wear on our foreheads for the day, the Ash Wednesday liturgy drives home another blunt message: Repent. That word, which appears 59 times in the New Testament, is not often heard in our churches today. But it comes through, loud and clear, on this one day. And countless thousands of Catholics—including, paradoxically, many who stay away from church on Sundays—come on Ash Wednesday to hear it.

That message is, unfortunately, not often heard in a typical American Catholic church. As Msgr. Pope observed, “There is very little ‘gravitas’ evident in many modern parish settings. Hence, there is often little respect given to what we do.”

Ash Wednesday comes only once a year. But we could have more “gravitas” in our parish churches every day: more solemnity in our celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy, more reverence in our conduct, more severity in our preaching. The religious communities that are growing today are the ones that place demands on their faithful—the ones whose teachings and actions command respect.

This is not an original observation. We know what draws people into the churches: not the promise of happy thoughts but the promise of salvation; not the power of positive thinking, but the power of the sacraments. So why don’t we act on that knowledge?

A related question, also unoriginal: Why does the Church continue to promote leaders who endorse the happy-talk approach, rather than those who might bring back the gravitas? By every available index, the Catholic Church is losing ground.* In any secular corporation, a similar downward trend would produce calls for a complete overhaul of management. Instead, in the Church, the bishops who have presided over the disasters select others like themselves, to continue roughly the same policies.

Our efforts to evangelize—to bring more people into the Church, and recapture those who have drifted away—are undermined by the reluctance to speak boldly about sin and redemption, damnation and salvation. “Our widespread modern cheerfulness is not a compelling message,” Msgr. Pope tells us, “because deep down most people know they’re in rough shape but the appointed doctors are more interested in attracting patients than healing them.”

*—Isn’t it noteworthy that the little pockets of the Church that are experiencing growth are generally out of step with the general trends: with the happy talk, easy grace, and banal worship?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 27, 2023 7:02 AM ET USA

    Very gracefully and charitably written.

  • Posted by: ewaughok - Feb. 26, 2023 3:21 PM ET USA

    Thanks, again, Mr Lawler, for bringing the truth of our present situation as Catholics in the U.S. to the fore. We can’t seem to break out of the liberalizing cycle among bishops that began in the late sixties, after Vatican II. Everyone knows it hasn’t been any good for the Catholic faithful, but the narcotic effect of laxity in doctrine and morals, grows and grows! It has been slowed at times by a strong bishop (Cardinal George, Archbishop Chaput), but comes creeping back as soon as they go…

  • Posted by: CorneliusG - Feb. 26, 2023 5:12 AM ET USA

    "happy talk, easy grace, and banal worship" - you've described 90%+ of the NO parishes. The solution (obviously) is to ban that pesky TLM.