Temporarily professed seminarian Brian Ching, C.S.C., has checked in with his latest post from his pastoral internship this year at St. John Vianney Parish in Goodyear, AZ. This time he shares how his experience of the "tidal wave" that is Ash Wednesday at SJV led to a tidal wave of grace in his own life and discernment.
Ash Wednesday is always a special day in the liturgical year in the life of a parish, a time when we dedicate ourselves to renew and re-emphasize our conversion towards Christ. Nothing, however, in my experience prepared me for my first Ash Wednesday at St. John Vianney. Every parish sees an uptick in attendance on Ash Wednesday and certainly a couple of extra masses are often called for, but here at St. John Vianney, the "uptick" for Ash Wednesday was much more of a "tidal wave."
On most Wednesdays we have two masses at the parish, our usual morning mass at 6:30 am and a mass for our school children at 8:00 am. For Ash Wednesday, however, we added 2 more masses plus 12 Liturgies of the Word with the distribution of ashes and another 3 services at locations outside of our Church, bringing our total number of services to 19. The masses of people simply kept on coming and coming throughout the night. What an amazing sight to behold, literally thousands of people coming forward to admit to God and to each other that they have sinned and that they desire to do better.
It is often easy to become cynical of the situation, especially for those of us who practice our faith regularly. The crowds we saw on Ash Wednesday far exceeded our usual mass attendance on Sunday, and it is fair to say that many of them won't be back to mass until Palm Sunday or Easter. While this is disheartening and we encourage those who come on Ash Wednesday to join us on Sundays throughout the year, the sheer number of people that come for ashes says something beautiful about our human desire for repentance and forgiveness. To see that many people waiting in line so that they could come before God and admit their sinfulness and make an act of repentance is a reminder that, though as humans we sin, there is something deep within us that desires to grow closer to the Lord.
What a reassuring message this is for a seminarian! There are days when we open up the newspaper or turn on the TV and it seems as if we live in a world that is increasingly straying from God, moving further and further away from God's love. Just recently a report came out citing that organized religion would "be driven to extinction" in nine major nations. All of this can be extremely discouraging and can dampen our zeal for the faith and for ministry. An attitude of "why bother" can easily creep into our discernment and our ministry as our zeal is replaced by sloth. Yet the experience of Ash Wednesday here at St. John Vianney reminds me – reminds all of us – that despite outward appearances, the desire for God is present and that people do seek and desire conversion, an opportunity to leave behind their sinfulness and live lives closer to God.
What can be more encouraging for a seminarian than this, that there is a natural desire for God among His people, even in spite of such a noisy and distracting world? Our zeal for ministry is not dampened, but rather strengthened. It is a reminder that there is great ministry to be done, but there is also much already present in God's people. What greater mission can we have than to go out and nurture that flickering flame in peoples' hearts so they might become a people on fire for God's love?