From the Director - Ash Wednesday and Catholic identity

By the time you receive this issue of The Far East, Ash Wednesday will be a past memory for 2012. Many readers will have attended Church and received ‘the ashes’. The priest or lay minister made a sign of the cross on your forehead with the ashes of the palms used at last year’s Palm Sunday celebration.

Quite a few Catholics and other Christians will have  worked, walked and talked  through their day with a blob of ‘dirt’ on their foreheads which is highly unusual when you think of it from a secular point of view. For many Catholics the ‘dirty forehead’ would trigger a reminder  that it must be Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

For people not familiar with Christian liturgy it must just seem odd. But  an action like this shapes our identity as Catholic people. Ash Wednesday proclaims to our society that we are preparing  for Easter, that it is a special time of prayer, penance and almsgiving, a time to renew our faith. The 40 days of Lent culminates with Easter, when we proclaim that the Lord has risen.

In a similar way, later in the year Muslims will undertake the month-long fast of Ramadan when they do not drink or eat between sunrise or sunset.  This  fasting is a part of their identity as Muslims, they do this for God, to honour God just as we honour God during Lent. It shapes their identity both internally and externally as it does ours.

Our Catholic Identity is very important to us, it makes us feel ‘at home’ in the Church. Since the Vatican II reforms, quite a few people have not felt ‘at home’ in the Church. I still hear people say that when the Mass was in Latin, you could go to Mass anywhere in the world and feel ‘at home’.  On the other hand most people feel that they are more ‘at home’ with Mass in English. At present the Latin Mass is having a resurgence; I hope that it allows people to be at peace and ‘at home’ in the Church, but I would not expect the majority of Catholics to embrace it.

As missionaries we become conscious of identity being lived out through culture and ritual.  We live our faith in a human concrete way; celebrating Lent as we do helps us with our identity as Catholics.

An example of changing Catholic identity is religious garb.  After the Vatican Council many religious sisters changed from their ‘uniforms’ or habits and adopted secular dress, proclaiming their religious identity with an insignia that  was the symbol of their congregation. Some priests put their tonsured shirt or Roman collar in the cupboard and wore a cross on their shirt collar or shirt to show they were 'clergy'.

For some people it was a wonderful breakthrough removing a barrier between the laity and the consecrated or ordained. For others it was not nearly enough religious identification; they wanted or perhaps needed religious and priests to be set apart by the clothes they wore,  they needed or wanted a stronger identification. This debate is still continuing.

Our Catholic identity is deepened by the practice of our Catholic faith. The identity of being Catholic is handed on by the rituals that we perform. A mother or grandmother takes her children to Our Lady’s chapel after Mass to light a candle and say a prayer; the children imitate her. There is power in these actions.  We need to continue to build and protect our Catholic identity so we can feel at home in the Church.
Fr Gary Walker

Read more from The Far East, March 2012