February 1, 2021 | Opinion

Ash Wednesday: An opportunity to acknowledge ‘I am a sinner’ and ask for God’s healing

Fr. Ray Clark


As a priest, each Ash Wednesday I have the opportunity to exercise my artistic abilities as I trace the cross with ashes on the forehead of each person who comes before me. Not this year. Because of the pandemic, the minister will sprinkle the ashes onto the top of our heads. Though this may be foreign to us, it is actually the practice in much of the Church.

For the Great Jubilee of 2000, several members of St. Joseph Parish in Mayfield, where I served at the time, joined with members of Sacred Heart Parish in Waverly on pilgrimage to Rome. We were there for Ash Wednesday. The morning Mass, which Pope John Paul II presided over, took place in St. Peter’s Square with well over 100,000 people in attendance. The cold March wind whipped around the corners of the marble buildings and chilled us.

That afternoon a few of us from St. Joseph’s were walking along when the Pope Mobile passed us, heading up a hill to a church. It was the Church of St. Sabina, where the pope traditionally celebrates Ash Wednesday evening Mass. We followed the procession and attended Mass in the church. John Paul sprinkled ashes over my head.

I celebrated Ash Wednesday 2018 at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, my parish church in Jerusalem. There I also received ashes on my head.

People generally turn out in crowds for Ash Wednesday. We often think it’s because we are getting something, even if it is only the ashes. But perhaps there’s something more. Perhaps as I receive the ashes, at some level I acknowledge: “I am a sinner.” That’s what Lent is about – being sorry for my sins so that God may remove them from my life.

This past summer a friend asked me to go to the local hospice to visit a member of his family who had been away from the Church for years.  Perhaps, my friend suggested, the family member might even consent to confession. The man gladly took the opportunity to confess his sins.  When it was time for him to pray the Act of Contrition, because he had been away from the Church I offered to pray the Act of Contrition so that he could repeat the sentences after me. He said to me: “Father, I’ve prayed the Act of Contrition every night for 20 years.”

On Ash Wednesday, as I receive the ashes I am saying: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”

Fr. Ray Clark serves as Director for the Propagation of the Faith and Director of Ecumenism in the Diocese of Owensboro.

Originally printed in the February 2021 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.


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