By Jessica Easthope
Dennis LaSalle makes sure to come to church every Ash Wednesday to receive his ashes, but this year, he entered St. James Cathedral Basilica with a heavy heart.
“There’s so much hatred in the world,” he said, referring not just to the war in Ukraine but to the deep cultural and political divisions tearing people apart, locally and globally.
As a result, LaSalle has made up his mind about how he will spend Lent.
“I’m going to give up having hatred and anger in my heart. I wish we would all do it, but if I want it to happen, it has to start with me,” he said as he sat in a pew waiting for the noon Mass to start. His decision was inspired by the pandemic.
“COVID taught me that life is short and we have to care for one another,” he explained.
Ash Wednesday 2022 marked the first time since the pandemic uprooted everyone’s lives that Catholics were able to take part in the holy day in a normal fashion.
It also marked Bishop Robert Brennan’s first Ash Wednesday since becoming Bishop of Brooklyn in November.
Bishop Brennan distributed ashes at the cathedral by rubbing them on the heads of each member of the congregation — a sharp contrast to last year, when the clergy sprinkled ashes on heads to avoid touching anyone.
Back in 2020, Ash Wednesday fell on Feb. 26, just as the pandemic was first taking hold nationally, but before the lockdown intended to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus began in New York City.
Now, even as confirmed cases of COVID-19 are declining locally and the worst appears to be over, the pandemic was still very much on the minds of people who gathered at the cathedral.
L. Brown, who declined to give her first name, lost a good friend to COVID last year and her visit to the cathedral was partly in memory of her buddy.
“I came because COVID made me think about life and how finite it is. I believe in a higher power helping all of us, so I’m here to acknowledge that,” she said.
Anne King was attending Mass for the first time in a month.
“Between the cold and the snow and COVID still around, I didn’t want to take a chance on going out. I’m 85 years old. It feels so good to be back. This is my church,” she said.
Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, is a good time to reflect, Bishop Brennan said. “One of the chief things about Lent is opening ourselves up to the grace of God. Opening ourselves to God who wants to give to us his very self,” he added.
Father Bryan Patterson, pastor of St. James Cathedral Basilica, said Ash Wednesday reminds people they have the chance to reach beyond their limitations for something greater.
“We have the opportunity to discover that God is here and that he loves us — even with our limitations,” he said.
This year, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Pope Francis asked the faithful to think of Ukrainians on Ash Wednesday.
“What Pope Francis has asked us to do is to take prayer and fasting today and make it an intentional act of prayer and fasting — praying for peace in our world right now, particularly peace in Ukraine,” Bishop Brennan said.