Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Ash Wednesday Emphasizes That Life Is a Pilgrimage

by Cardinal John O'Connor


Cardinal O'Connor's remarks and homily at Sunday Mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral Feb. 18, 1997. Cardinal O'Connor died on May 3, 2000.

Publisher & Date

EWTN, February 11, 1997

I have been speaking of having a Latin Gregorian Mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral. This Mass has come to be called the Mass of Pope Paul VI, the Vatican II Mass, not the so-called Tridentine Mass of the past few hundred years. This is just a reminder for those who come here regularly so that you will not be surprised or shocked. We will be having that Mass on the 17th of March which, of course, is the feast of St. Patrick, the patron saint of the Archdiocese of New York and of this cathedral. All of the customary, celebratory functions such as the St. Patrick's Day Parade and our Mass here prior to the parade will be on Saturday, the 16th. Since the 17th is a Sunday we will observe it as the feast of St. Patrick. Since St. Patrick offered Mass in Latin, the language of his day, that will be fitting.

Everything about Lent is countercultural. This is symbolized by the ashes on Ash Wednesday. Last Ash Wednesday I believe that we had 34,000 people come to this cathedral and leave with ashes on the foreheads. Many of them participated in the Masses here on Ash Wednesday, many people of all walks of life, of all colors, of all ethnic backgrounds and languages. But all left here having heard the same words, "Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return"—an extraordinary countercultural reminder that flies in the face of everything that our culture normally celebrates: status, prestige, wealth, providing for the future, security and many other legitimate concerns.

The emphasis on Ash Wednesday is that this life is a pilgrimage. We are here today and gone tomorrow. We saw this tragically just the other night with the train crash in Washington. As a priest, of course, the first question I ask myself, without any implication to the contrary, is "Were the people who died in a state of grace, prepared for death?" The Church still teaches heaven, purgatory and hell. None of these has been abrogated. The Church still teaches that if we actually die in the state of mortal sin we may be facing eternal suffering which never ends in accordance with the divine Word, the Word of the merciful, compassionate God. Of course God is abundantly merciful and can forgive in the flash of an instant, so even if we but say the words at the moment of death, we can be forgiven.

So I ask if these people were prepared. Others ask, "Where were they going?" "What were they doing?" "What were their plans?" "What were their hopes, their dreams, their visions?" "How many people were dependent on them?" Does any of that matter now to those who have died?

This is a tremendous reminder, a reminder of Ash Wednesday and of all of Lent. We must plan. We must carry out our responsibilities. We must try to assure a certain security for our families. We must, in this day, take care of health care needs and so on. But Lent reminds us that we should do all of these things while giving primacy to the place of the soul, primacy to the spiritual, primacy to the reality that at literally any moment we can be facing Almighty God for all eternity as is true of those who were killed in the train crash. I say this not to be morbid, because the Church is not morbid. It is realistic. It always reminds us compassionately and mercifully of reality.

Ash Wednesday is a major symbol that the Church is countercultural, that the values of this world are not the values of the Church, that they are not at all necessarily God's values or God's design. It is spelled out in today's three readings which breathe the spirit of Lent and the spirit of the countercultural. In the first reading from the Old Testament, the reading of the book of Leviticus, the Lord said to Moses, "Be holy." [Lv. 19:1-2, 17-18]

No matter how understanding we are, how much we do not want to condemn, this is not a holy world. It is obvious every day. It is obvious in television, in movies, in advertising, in industry, in politics. This is an unholy world. Yet, the Lord told Moses, "Be holy." Moses lived in an unholy world, the world in which God's people were persecuted because of their beliefs. Yet God said, "Be holy." Our Lord goes on quite counterculturally. "Take no revenge and cherish no grudge...You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

These are all countercultural values which were articulated once again in St. Paul's letter to the people of Corinth, a letter that we refer to so often, a letter about this Church which Paul loves so much, this infant Church which had been so good, so pure, so holy at its founding but has now fallen into bickering and divisions, into hatred and jealousy, into the worship of gods and goddesses and all sorts of sexual licentiousness. That was the culture of Corinth.

People from the provinces would say, "I am going to be a Corinthian for the weekend. I am going to Corinth where there are no holds barred." Isn't that true of much of our culture, of much of the culture in which we live and move and have our being? St. Paul wrote to the people of Corinth and said, "If any one of you thinks he is wise in a worldly way, he had better become a fool. In that way he will really be wise, for the wisdom of this world is absurdity with God." It is the wisdom of the cross. It is the wisdom of Christ who permitted Himself to have a purple cloak thrown over His shoulders after He was beaten almost to death, and have the soldiers dance around Him, bowing in mockery and spitting at Him and saying, "Look at the Son of God." They put a crown on His head, but it was a crown of thorns. They put a reed in His hand as a scepter. He was a fool in the eyes of the world. In the Gospel of St. Matthew how countercultural it is to say, and this is coming from Jesus, "When a person strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the other. If anyone wants to go to law over your shirt, hand him your coat as well." [Mt. 5:38-48]

When I was returning from the seminary early this morning I heard over the radio of a little town some distance from here where a man who is doing quite well in his barbershop decided this was not enough. He wanted to help others. He went to a project were many elderly people live. Many of them are poor elderly unable to leave their homes. Many of them are in wheelchairs and do not have anyone to take them to a barber. He would cut their hair free-of-charge. But now in this litigious society the town councillor has ruled that he may not do this because the town or the barber could be sued.

This is the kind of culture about which our Lord was speaking. This man was doing good, making people feel better, old people, helpless people. But he might be sued! Our Lord said, "If anyone wants to go to law over your shirt, hand him your coat as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the man who begs from you." It is very difficult for us to "Love our enemies. Pray for our persecutors." This is all countercultural, spelled out in each of the three Scriptures. It is spelled out in your being here Sunday after Sunday, regardless of the weather.

There is something developing within our Church. There is a revitalization of faith. I have been here as archbishop for 12 years now. I remember in the early years, come the cold, dark weather, for many, many weeks this cathedral would be virtually empty. But now you are here! The spirit of God is moving among you, God's people. This is countercultural! The culture says you should be sleeping now. The culture says you should stay in where it is nice and warm. The culture says this is your only free day, enjoy yourselves. But you are here. This choir heightens my admiration Sunday after Sunday. So many of them come here from distances. Some of them are Catholic and some are of other religious persuasions. They come to give us the glorious music of this Mass. They are not supposed to do things like that in this culture. That is countercultural. That is of the spirit of Lent—to give, to give, to give, to deprive oneself.

This countercultural spirit which breathes the very meaning of the life of Christ and of the Church is being acted out in a striking way in our seminary this weekend, not by the seminarians, although they are always engaged in such, but by a group of some 65 men, many of them in college, only three seniors in high school, many in the work force. They are there to make a retreat to try to discern whether or not God wants them to become priests. A number of them trudged as much as two hours during that near blizzard on Friday night, carrying heavy bags, to make their way to the seminary because they could find no transportation. Many of them, despite the snow, came from significant distances.

Are these men failures in the world? On the contrary, one of them, for example, with an advanced degree is a university administrator. One of them will this Tuesday take his final examination for his master's in business. One of them is a Yale graduate who is in marketing. One of them is in cable TV. One is a police sergeant, a daily communicant. Some are school teachers, social workers and some still in college. They have followed the invitation of our Lord.

When some of those hesitant among the initial band chosen ultimately to be Apostles asked our Lord, "Where do you live?" He said, "Come and see." They have come to see, to think, to pray, to listen and to discern. Why are they doing this? They live in this culture, but they see the needs. They see the hungry and the homeless. Above all, they see the spiritually deprived. They see those who are virtually starving for the things of the spirit. They have come to learn in this culture the primacy of the spirit which is countercultural. They have come to guess the blinding value of the human soul. Ultimately, they want to help people save their souls as well as helping them in material ways. This is a magnificently heartwarming sign of what is happening in our faith as it becomes the sign of the counterculture.

When Simeon took Mary's Baby Jesus in his arms he said, "This child will be a sign of contradiction. Some in this culture will follow Him, many will reject Him." The Church herself is a sign of contradiction, the countercultural.

I am conducting that retreat for these men at the seminary. I will return there immediately after Mass. We began the retreat on Friday evening; it will not end until approximately 1 o'clock tomorrow afternoon. Look at the time these men are giving up.

Later in the retreat we will talk about preparing for Lent, thinking about leaving everything behind, simplifying their lives, following the invitation of Christ who said, "If you want to follow me, go get rid of everything else and then come follow me." That is what they are struggling with now.

I will tell them of the column I wrote recently for our archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New York. It is a simple little column about a simple little thing called "burnt brown soup." If you have heard of burnt brown soup, you were raised by an extraordinary mother. Always on Ash Wednesday my mother would cook up a concoction of what was essentially burnt flour, water and noodles. We kids loved it. We kids who were very finicky eaters loved it. But what my mother wanted to do was to impress on us how simple life can be, how simple life should be. That was pretty much our steady diet during Lent. Of course, we took the matter of not eating meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays and various other days of Lent very seriously. This was our training as children. But above all, subtly, almost unconsciously, it emphasized the simplicity of life.

The poet Goethe put it, "Man needs but little here below, nor needs that little long." This to me is the spirit of Ash Wednesday, the spirit of Lent. It is surely not by chance that Christ was completely stripped of His garments before He was nailed to the cross and crucified. He has absolutely nothing left. Naked He had come from His mother's womb, naked He returned to His Father.

What a synthesis of the meaning of Lent, a restoration of simplicity. We are given in Lent this wonderful opportunity to sort out our values, to get in out of the rain, to step out of this culture if it be but for a moment a day to regulate our eating habits not simply for the sake of physical diets but as a reminder of how much simpler life can be. There are many people out in this bitter weather who have no place to stay. Despite what some may believe they are not simply bums, they are not simply people who refuse to work for a living. Many of them, of course, are mentally ill. Many have nothing. They have lost jobs and homes. They are trying to survive. It gives us a kinship with them and with the naked Christ if we, too, try to simplify our lives during Lent.

Thomas Merton reminds us in his "Seeds of Contemplation" that ultimately faith is the only key to the universe, the final meaning of human existence and the answers to the questions on which all our happiness depends.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta tells us how to go about trying to find that faith. She says:

"We need to find God. He can not be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature, trees, flowers, grass all grow in silence. See the stars, the moon and the sun how they move in silence. Is not our mission to give God to the poor in the slums, not a dead God but a living, loving God. The more we receive in silent prayer the more we can give in our act of life. We need silence to be able to touch souls.

"The essential thing is not what we say but what God says to us and through us. All our words will be useless unless they come from within. Words that do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness."

Lent—a time for silence, a time for prayer, a time to be countercultural.

This item 2760 digitally provided courtesy of