The webpage of the Youth Ministry of the Irish Province of Augustinians

1st Sunday of Lent, Year B - 26th of February, 2012

Lent began on Wednesday with the customary imposition of ashes. This gesture remains extremely popular even with people who do not normally attend church services. Particularly striking, last Wednesday, was the fact that so many young people continue to wear the ashes that mark the beginning of Lent. What is going on behind this gesture?
Those. more cynical than I, might say that the wearing of ashes is a vestige of good old-fashioned catholic guilt. This opinion contests that Catholics are so conditioned to feel guilty that their actions, even beyond their religious practice, are coloured by guilt. This general idea has gained some currency in our media and even our general conversation and it is no longer unusual to hear people describing themselves as “recovering Catholics”.
It is tempting, especially in the aftermath of the revelations of the sexual abuse of children by priests, and the way this horror was dealt with (or not) by the bishops, to accept any criticism of the church as both justified and justifiable. However, catholic guilt and what it seems to imply is not immune to scrutiny.
While it seems to be certainly true that past generations were raised in a religious atmosphere which was characterised by an emphasis on sin (especially sexual sin) and judgement. God tended to be depicted as a remote figure who doled out punishment or praise. In this atmosphere the possibilities and rewards for praise were few and far between. A very strong emphasis was placed on punishment, sin, guilt and the need to atone for sin.
Very importantly, this was not the experience of anyone who is under 46-50 years of age. In fact, for this age group and younger, the religious education with which they were presented was entirely different. New curricula for religious education took much more account of developments in psychology and understanding the human person. Advances in biblical studies recovered the Bible’s strong emphasis on God’s love and faithfulness. Liturgical changes meant that the experience of common worship was one in which the stress was more about a community meal and less about a sacrifice.
The God that younger people (under 50) grew up with was very much incarnated in human experience. This is a God who understands human weakness rather than judging it. This God forgives rather than judges; invites rather than commands; is compassionate rather than demanding. While it is certainly true that this change in emphasis can sometimes under-stress God’s divinity and immutability it is also true that these advances have led us to an understanding of God as being in relationship with us in a way that had not been understood by most catholics prior to Vatican II.
Young people wearing ashes, then, is not an expression of guilt. I think something else is going on.
Modern life moves very quickly. As we develop more and more means of communication it is becoming more and more difficult to have meaningful communication. Texting, social networking and mobile phones all mean that we are more in touch than ever but can also mean that we tend to remain at the level of superficial communication – abbreviated text messages, virtual friends and short “relevant” conversations do little to increase our sense of worth and being valued.
Loneliness is one of the most common experiences of our modern times. Loneliness, which older people seem to be surprised by, is the experience of many people in our society today – we all know that the Irish statistics for depression, suicide and addiction are frighteningly high. These are all phenomena that are closely associated with loneliness.
It is not uncommon for people to no longer know their neighbours. Young people who are married or living together often have to both work which means that they can very often end up passing each other in the hallway. House prices have meant that young people no longer can live close to where they grew up and find themselves having to move far from their families, their friends and their social circle. Employment is no longer considered to be a job for life and workmates, instead of being colleagues, are often in competition with each other. It is becoming harder and harder for young people to get a sense of belonging.
I think that the wearing of ashes is actually about belonging. It is an anonymous way to belong to and with one another. We only have to take account of the acknowledgement we receive at bus stops, on trains, on streets and in shops when two people wearing the ashes meet. Perhaps nothing is said, but there is a recognition that two people who do not know each other, have something in common.
The wearing of ashes is a sort of coming out of the closet for catholics. While it is no longer cool, or even acceptable for some people, to go regularly to mass, the ashes have survived as a sign of our unity and of a common bond between us.
The gay community often uses a song called “I Am What I Am” as a sort of anthem. This is song which celebrates the value of difference, of being different, of valuing individuality and personality. As catholics we need to proclaim our own version of this song – I Am What I Am And What I Am Is A Catholic.
Each one of us was created as special. Our being catholic is one aspect of this specialness. Let us be proud of the difference we make to the world – we are salt for the earth and light for the world.
Having come out of the closet for Ash Wednesday let us stay out of it during Lent and hold our heads high.

Article posted on 26th of February 2012

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