I picked up the local newspaper the day after Ash Wednesday. I’m such a dinosaur that I read three papers every morning. I do that because unlike CNN on television, papers don’t consider the latest cat video on YouTube to be the most engaging news of the moment. Instead, they are satisfied being the daily roll call of our collective sins and opportunities.
Local news dominated the front-page stories that Thursday morning with different allegations of political corruption — Pennsylvania’s stock-and-trade — vying for attention.
One story featured a photo of Pittsburgh’s mayor answering questions about alleged financial hijinks in the police department; another showed a superior court judge accused of using her tax-paid staff on taxpayer time for family politicking.
I won’t bore you with the details, or presume guilt or innocence. But here’s an interesting detail. On the mayor’s forehead you could clearly see the outline of a cross made with ashes on Wednesday. The same was true in the accompanying photo of the accused judge as she headed out of the court house.
Finally, it being the morning after the Ash Wednesday night before, there was a big color front-page photo of the local Episcopalian bishop who had parked himself in one of the squares downtown and had distributed ashes. The cutline identified the recipient of the ashes from the good bishop as a Catholic.
My point isn’t a dark Lenten mediation on political shenanigans or religious syncretism. I’m thinking instead of the things that hold.
Just two blocks from where the Episcopalian bishop was giving out roadside ashes, the diocesan office building had opened its doors to distribute ashes between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to the downtown office crowd.
One of the guys in the diocese was handing out cards to those entering the building, reminding them confession would be held on a mid-Lent evening in every parish in the diocese.
He printed 1,500 cards. They were gone by 11:30 a.m.
Next door to the diocesan office is a parish where Mass was held at noon and ashes distributed at the end. Every pew was filled and there wasn’t an inch of standing room left when Mass began.
When Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would retire to a life of solitude, prayer and writing just before Ash Wednesday, the media went into a Catholic-bashing orgy about the Church in shock and a faith on the precipice.
Media generally had few Catholics to cite in the doom and gloom other than anonymous “observers,” so they generally reverted to “it-has-been-said” stories: “It has been said that the Catholic Church is now entering a period of decline blah, blah, blah.”
They provided that disembodied “It has been said” as a forum for their own opinion, even though they are not Catholic. Or if so, they haven’t darkened the door of a church since high school or Uncle Ernie’s funeral.
It’s the only thing I hold against the Holy Father in his decision — another excuse for Catholic bashing in a world that doesn’t need a lot of excuses.
But then Ash Wednesday comes along.
I see Catholic after Catholic lining up to be marked with the Sign of the Cross.
I see a Mass packed in the middle of the week with folks of every age to receive the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
I see, a few weeks later, churches filled for an evening with penitents, ready to confess their sins, receive the forgiving absolution of Jesus and to pledge to amend their lives.
The things that matter hold.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.