On the weekend just before Ash Wednesday, this special issue of the Pittsburgh Catholic is being mailed directly to you. This is a gift from your neighborhood parish.
If you aren’t familiar with the Pittsburgh Catholic, let me take a moment to introduce you to our diocesan newspaper. It’s the widest circulated weekly Catholic newspaper in the United States. It’s the largest of any weekly in western Pennsylvania. Founded in 1844, one year after the Diocese of Pittsburgh was established, the Pittsburgh Catholic is also one of the oldest Catholic newspapers in the United States.
It’s not just big and old. It is also good reading. Stories about the Catholic Church in your neighborhood, your county, Pennsylvania, our country and our world. The Pittsburgh Catholic focuses on seeing the news through the eyes of faith. You’ll also hear from me regularly, either through this column or through local diocesan news. Much of our international coverage is on the actions and teachings of Pope Francis.
The Pittsburgh Catholic is provided weekly through your nearby parish. Or see the advertisement in this week’s issue to have our newspaper mailed to your home every week. I promise you a solid, informative read.
A beautiful sight
This “read” to your home was set to coincide with Ash Wednesday, coming up a little late this year on March 1.
Now, before I go further, let me answer a question I am asked each and every year to show you what you can learn by reading the Pittsburgh Catholic: How is the date of Ash Wednesday picked each year?
Ash Wednesday is determined by the date of Easter Sunday, a moveable feast that was set back in 325 A.D. by the early church Council of Nicaea. The Church Fathers determined that Easter in the Roman Catholic Church would always be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon that falls on or after March 21, the spring equinox. That means Easter can occur as early as March 22 and as late as April 25. Ash Wednesday is always 46 days prior to Easter — 40 days of the traditional penitential period, plus the six non-penitential Sundays of Lent. So this year, Ash Wednesday is March 1, and 46 days later you have April 16 for Easter.
I have to admit that Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite dates on the liturgical calendar. As bishop, I celebrate four Masses that day: in the early morning with our seminarians at St. Paul Seminary; at noon at St. Mary of Mercy Parish; at 6 p.m. at our St. Paul Cathedral; and late in the evening with the students at Duquesne University. An important part of those Masses is the “signing” of the foreheads of the folks gathered with the sign of the cross.
Wherever you are on Ash Wednesday, you’ll see all the usual busy people rushing around, but so many with crosses on their foreheads. It’s a beautiful sight. It’s a moment of pride in the faith. It’s a reminder of the beginning of Lent.
You can be anywhere in southwestern Pennsylvania on Ash Wednesday and witness this sign of faith. In all of our 188 parishes, in all of our six counties — Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Greene, Lawrence and Washington — in each of our four vicariates, you will see the same thing, people marked with the cross, the sign of our faith. Ashes will be distributed in every one of our parishes. You can check with your nearest parish to find out when.
Greater space for God
Let me propose something — to practicing, occasional practicing and non-practicing Catholics. Let’s pledge a little nudge for Lent. Nothing too hard. Nothing too complicated. Nothing to set you back. But it could be pretty rewarding, particularly for the occasionals and the nons. And not too bad for the practicings as well.
First, overall, pledge a little time to the traditional Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and good works.
Give at least a few minutes of daily prayer a try — either the traditional prayers that you remember, prayers you might glean from a prayer book, the Bible or simply a few words from the heart. Or maybe even more frequent participation at the holy Mass. It all counts.
Next, keep the traditional Lenten fast — Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as days of fasting and abstinence, meaning no meat; eating “lite” with no snacks in between modest meals. Then keep Lenten Fridays as days of abstinence from meat. Simple. And you can “give over to God” for the season something you enjoy. For many, chocolate seems to be a favorite. Though beer works, too. Maybe TV or movies. The iPad or even the iPhone. The purpose of “giving over” to God is to make greater “space” for God in our lives.
Finally, good works — helping someone out personally or contributing within your means to charities that help the poor and those in need. A good example is Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
From there, a few other suggested things for Lent. For the occasionals and the nons, take a pledge to attend Mass for the six Sundays of Lent at your local parish or one nearby. It’s not that hard. Check Mass times with the local parish. And for now, it’s a good start! But also:
• Remember Ash Wednesday. Check with your local parish and make sure to be “signed with the cross.”
• “The Light is On for You!”: Wednesday, March 15, we will hold our traditional “The Light is On for You!” celebration of the sacrament of confession. This will be in the evening at virtually every parish in the diocese. The churches will be open, the lights on and the sacrament of confession offered. This is for the practicings, the occasionals and the nons. An open invitation for Lent. Please check for time and place with your local parish.
• During Holy Week, try to attend the Holy Thursday chrism Mass at St. Paul Cathedral. It begins at 10 a.m. I’ll look forward to seeing you there. Also, check the churches nearby you for evening services. Maybe even consider the tradition of the seven-church visits that night.
• On Good Friday, check at your nearby parishes for the Good Friday liturgy and for the Stations of the Cross.
• And don’t forget Easter: the blessing of food baskets, Easter Mass and the traditional blessing of families by our auxiliary bishops and myself at the cathedral on Easter Sunday afternoon.
Heaven is for real
That’s it. That’s all I’m asking you to do. Pretty easy and not too demanding. But here’s something I know for sure. Connect with God again this Lent. It can change your life. I guarantee it.
Here’s the bottom line. God calls each of us to get to heaven. God wants each one of us to get to heaven. The church is telling us, showing us and teaching us that we can all get there. The culture that surrounds us claims every day that such a goal is little more than a pipe dream. But we don’t buy that. Because the one thing we know with absolute certainty is that heaven is for real. It can change your life — forever with God.