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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ash Wednesday: The Pilgrimage of Conversion

By Susan Fox

On Ash Wednesday, I went on an unexpected pilgrimage, trying unsuccessfully to go to confession.

The churches were packed.

I went to Mass at my parish at 2 p.m. It was packed, and it was only one of six Masses on a day, which is not a Holy Day of Obligation. In Catholic talk, it was not a day in which we are required to attend Mass, like a Sunday.

I drove 30 miles to another church for confession at 4 p.m., but they had cancelled it due to the 5 p.m. Mass. At that parish, I lit a candle in reparation for my sins in front of the Jesus, Divine Mercy statue. Little things like that please God, who is Little Himself, and promised "Unless you become as a little child, you shall not enter the Kingdom of God.".

Then I was going past another parish, and I remembered they had confession at 5 p.m. So I got in line there behind a lady who had already gotten in line three times this week for confession, but she had been unable to get in. We were the last two standing when Mass started and again we couldn’t go. But waiting in line was a joy and an adventure in itself.

As I left, there was hardly any standing room left, and people were still pouring in, illegally parking and asking me why I was leaving with ashes already on my forehead.

The ashes we get one day out of the year at the start of a season of penance called Lent. They make us Catholics look like we were working in the garage and forgot to wash our faces. But they are supposed to remind us that we are dust and unto dust we shall return.

Years ago, I met a very young man who didn’t believe in God. I pointed to his flower bed, and told him someday he and I would be buried under that. “And where will you be then?” I asked. He had trouble wrapping his mind around that concept. But it’s good to remember that this life is not the end of our pilgrimage. And I hope that someday both the young man and I will be with God -- not under the flower bed.

The New York Post reported on the crowds at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York that it was “the largest Ash Wednesday congregation in recent memory.” We had the same feeling standing in line for confession at St. Thomas the Apostle in Phoenix. It felt like the whole world had come to Church to put on sackcloth and ashes -- to change their lives.

This is a great sign of hope. Maybe it took a recession, a huge and wasteful stimulus bill and an administration absolutely bent on death to shake us out of our complacency. Whatever it is, Father, keep bringing it on. You know when Jonah preached to Nineveh, the whole of the people from the king on down put on sackcloth and ashes and repented of their sins. The promised destruction never occurred and Jonah actually had his nose out of joint. My husband knows a deep theological reason for that (He was a Jew and the people of Nineveh weren’t), but personally I think he thought he looked a fool when the promised destruction didn’t materialize. Regardless, as Christians, I hope we will always rejoice when people turn their hearts to God.

If you are a person who regularly goes to church, people sometimes think that you think you are better than they are. But in fact, the opposite is true. Pope John Paul II talked about this in his encyclical called, “On the Mercy of God.”

People coming to Church on Ash Wednesday are seeking God’s mercy, His charity. They recognize that something is wrong and they want to change. This isn’t a one-time deal like accepting Christ and then being saved forever. We have to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.

“Authentic knowledge of the God of mercy, the God of tender love, is a constant and inexhaustible source of conversion, not only as a momentary interior act but also as a permanent attitude, as a state of mind,” Pope John Paul II wrote. “Those who come to know God in this way, who ‘see’ him in this way, can live only in a state of being continually converted to him. They live therefore in statu conversionis; and it is this state of conversion which marks out the most profound element of the pilgrimage of every man and woman in statu viatoris (in a state of pilgrimage).”

That’s how we who go to church regularly live – as sinners constantly trying to change our lives for the good. We don’t sit in the pew complacently thinking, “I’m saved. I don’t have to do anything.” We go to Mass. We confess our sins frequently. We do acts of charity for our neighbor. We pray. We read the Scripture, seeking a deeper relationship with God, a deeper love and knowledge.

And unlike other denominations, we have the richest, the choicest of helps in this pilgrimage. After Baptism, we have a divine encounter with Christ in which we can personally deal with our faults. “It is the sacrament of penance or reconciliation that prepares the way for each individual, even those weighed down with great faults. In this sacrament each person can experience mercy in a unique way, that is, the love that is more powerful than sin,” Pope John Paul II added.

Many people have reported that they feared to discuss their sins in confession especially if it is their first confession or they haven’t been to confession in a long time. But what they don’t realize is that “It is precisely because sin exists in the world, which ‘God so loves . . . that he gave his only Son,” the pope wrote. God, who is love, cannot reveal Himself other than as mercy. “This corresponds not only to the most profound truth of that love which God is, but also to the whole interior truth of man and of the world which is man’s temporary homeland.”

So as we were standing in line waiting for confession Wednesday, we were all congratulating ourselves because we knew we were sinners. And we weren’t alone in that condition. St. John said if there is one among you who says he is without sin, he is a liar. Not only that, we knew that today we might overcome one fault, but tomorrow we would recognize 20 more. God doesn’t reveal all one’s sins in a basket. We couldn’t bear it. First he lays the foundation, the basement, and then by baby steps adds the first and second floor. By the time you reach the attic, you realize you have been working all along on Faith, Hope and Charity. He shows it to you lovingly over time as you go on your pilgrimage of faith to the Father’s house.

I dearly love standing in line for confession. I feel very close to Christ because Jesus did the same thing when he approached the River Jordan to be baptized by St. John the Baptist. The Pharisees wouldn’t go in. They stood on a hill nearby and watched because entering the river for baptism was an admission of guilt.

The unblemished Lamb of God humbly entered the river with the other sinners, but to a different end. He wanted to gather us sinners up close to His Sacred Heart to make us perfect like Him. Jesus – the sinless One –plunged us into the rivers of Baptism and Repentance -- His own life, death and resurrection. So as St. Paul says, because we have died with Christ, we shall LIVE with Him.

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