Too Many Masses? Pastoral-Liturgical Practice on Ash Wednesday

With Ash Wednesday upon us, my thoughts run to years past when, one time in a parish and another on a university campus, the pastor and campus ministry director, respectively, insisted that ashes be distributed only during Masses. Each scenario contributed to my growing conviction that decades of liturgical reform and renewal in the U.S. Catholic Church have realized a prioritizing of the Mass to the detriment of the wider range of the church’s rites. Readily acknowledging that my observation-cum-concern here is hardly original, I offer the following comments for the purpose of conversation.

The parish, situated near several office parks on the edge of a big city, would have hundreds of people converging on the regular weekday morning Mass and then additional special Masses at noon and early evening for Ash Wednesday. Effectively, the pastor had turned the day into some  sort of solemnity (in the popular vernacular, a holy day of obligation). It seemed to me he misunderstood the ritual’s prescription that distribution of ashes take place in the context of a liturgy of the word. The pastor vigorously disagreed, saying something to the effect that the people should be willing to “make the sacrifice” of spending a full hour at Mass at the start of Lent. There was no discussing it further. For my part, assigned to the special noon Mass that day, I explained at the Introductory Rite and then the end of my homily that it was not a holy day of obligation and that people who either wished or needed to depart after the imposition of ashes and prayers of the faithful (that is, the conclusion of the liturgy of the word) should feel no shame in doing so. I can honestly say the facial and bodily expressions of relief on the part of many confirmed my pastoral concern (a concern, as a cleric, I constantly carry, namely, that I not presume the motives, let alone the personal and familial obligations, of the people).

As for the campus ministry director (also a cleric), I believe he had come to consider and practice the Mass as the nearly singular way of assembling the community in prayer. When he asked that I take a late night Ash Wednesday Mass at chapel of one of the campuses of the university, I countered that it seemed to me that the members of his staff assigned to/regularly serving that campus (a religious sister and a couple lay men and women, all but one residing in the dorms), who would be accompanying those students throughout the season would seem the better people to preside and preach at a liturgy of the word on Ash Wednesday (note: I am well aware that stricter directives about such matters have come down from the Vatican and USCCB since that time in the late 1990s). I found the priest’s response to be downright angry, ordering me to “take the Mass.” And so, I did.

Given the history of Ash Wednesday’s emergence and various morphings over the centuries as a ritual-symbol inaugurating a season of penitence, I simply do not see why, in the Roman Catholic Church, at least, the most apt liturgy would not be based on the sample penitential services (basically, liturgies of the word) found at the end of the Rite of Penance. Preaching would include reflection on whether and how one’s way of life might need reform as one prepares to renew one’s baptismal promises–and with those, share in Holy Communion–at Easter (the primary purpose of the season). The sample examinations of conscience enhance the invitation. It’s not simply a matter of “fasting from the Eucharist”–nomenclature that seems to have emerged over these years–but, rather, of celebrating a rite sensitive to those whose consciences prohibit them from participating in Holy Communion at Mass.

Has the clerical domination of (rather than service to) the church’s liturgy not, in too many cases, deprived the people who have a right (according to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) to the rites, a right that reasonably entails knowledgeable and pastoral sensitive service on the part of the clergy? I know I’m generalizing here (but isn’t that part of what this sort of blog does in eliciting discussions?). I’m dismayed at the evidence for how growing regions of the U.S. Catholic Church lacking ordained pastors see ever-diminishing participation in any and all the rites and services (which can at least in part be attributed to people’s so identifying “church” with “priest”). I’m haunted by the extent to which for now two generations of American Roman Catholics “Mass” is the singular symbol of their ritual imaginations. Over the couple decades of my priestly ministry I have repeatedly had people at the end of baptisms and marriage rites (without liturgies of the eucharist) say, “Thank you for the nice Mass, Father.” I take that as a symptom of a pastoral-liturgical poverty of knowledge and experience in at least parts of our contemporary church (while inviting observations and comments, of course, from sisters and brothers across the ecumenical spectrum).


  1. Tomorrow, as in years past, we will call people to repent and believe the good news and impose ashes following Liturgies of the Word at 9am and 5:30pm, and following Mass at 7pm. Ash Wednesday is primarily about Ashes not Holy Communion. It is not a solemnity, it is not Sunday and thus the canonical permission for multiple Masses by each priest is not in force. Even were I permitted I would offer only one Mass.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #1:
      We scheduled 7 Masses with myself, my associate and three retired priests. Each averaged at least 900 persons in a church which seats at least 1000. It was a very full day. This is a very busy Florida parish in the winter. It feels like the whole world is here this winter. Its good to talk liturgical theology and canonical issues but there are some of us who don’t have the time to do anything but work. The people come first. You do what you have to do. The collection per the USCCB was for the church in Eastern Europe.

  2. (Cough)

    Is a collection taken up at each Mass?

    If so, the pastor may feel it’s harder to pull that off with a different liturgical form….

    1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #2:
      Lol. There may be another motive: in my area, people who aren’t Catholic want ashes; I don’t know why, but Christians of many different faiths identify with it. Some non-Catholic denominations have developed their own services, but for many whose churches have not done so, attending and receiving at a Catholic church is an option. Having a Mass with it, gives people more exposure to the faith. Just a thought.

  3. In the context of a Hospital Chapel that has 22 chairs, my slate is:

    Morning Prayer with Imposition of Ashes at 7:30 AM
    Holy Eucharist with Imposition of Ashes at 11 AM and Noon
    Evening Prayer with Imposition of Ashes at 4:30 PM

    I also add “Ashes on the Go” for an hour. During that time, I share personal prayer with those who come by, usually sharing a snippet of the day’s readings with them, and then ‘ashing’ them. These are usually surgeons, nurses, or others who can only steal a few minutes to themselves during the day to mark the day.

    We will probably have 35 or more in each of the two Eucharistic liturgies… with about a dozen at the Offices. Between room visits to patients, being stopped on the floors, and the Ashes on the Go, last year, we ministered to over 250.

    I’d prefer a single Eucharist, but the demand is high and my space is limited. Even if I took out the chairs and did standing room only, I’d still not be able to accommodate those who want to attend a Eucharistic celebration.

  4. I think a nice Liturgy of the Word or prayer service preceding distribution of the ashes is a great idea. At my parish (mostly Hispanic) because of the large number of people who just want ashes, we have a morning Mass (English) and two bilingual evening Masses, along with times between for simple walk-in distribution of ashes Those bother me. People get the ashes with no “commitment” to their meaning. It’s only one step away from “drive through.”

  5. Obviously, I am not against Mass at all, but I think there has developed a strange ethic that only Mass is acceptable. And you should feel guilty if you don’t go. As little as a couple of years ago, we had a morning Mass (really, the usual daily Mass) with distribution of ashes, two Liturgy of the Word services with ashes during the day (maybe 3 counting a hospital chapel service) and an evening Mass. This year? Four Masses in English, I think one in Spanish, and no simple services. The one I could have attended if it were a simple service, I can’t make now because of a dental appointment that I didn’t plan well when it was set up. That will have to be my penance.

  6. I am fortunate to be in a community now that celebrates an ecumenical liturgy of the word as its official Catholic liturgy for ash Wednesday. It is rare though, too often it has been parishioners who think that the only liturgy is the Eucharist, and pastors unwilling or unable to persuade them differently.

    Perhaps if we returned to mass as strictly and only the Sunday Liturgy, rather than Mass for everything, everywhere, every time, we would be better served all around.

  7. My former bishop regularly reminded staff that our prayer vocabulary included more than Eucharist. He regularly used the Prayers of the Hours for diocesan events.

  8. I would prefer that liturgical gatherings that cannot fit into a chapel, oratory, church or cathedral be the Liturgy of the Hours by default, rather than Masses. I think FCAP suffers tremendously in mass(ive) settings, and while of course it’s not great to see the Liturgy of Hours compromised that way, it’s worse still for the Mass. YMMV.

  9. We will be having 3 masses in Church – 7:30am; 12:30pm & 7:00pm EF High Mass – before, during and after which confessions will be heard, plus extra masses at a local convent (8:00am) and nursing home (9:30am). Ashes will be distributed at all masses. On the basis of the past four years’ experience, the church will be full (500)at all masses. It is one of the biggest days of the liturgical year in terms of attendance, even though according to Abp Bugnini (p 307) Lent doesn’t begin until Sunday. Here, as in other areas, I am willing to brave the ire of the liturgical purists and accept (however reluctantly) that “vox populi” is “vox Dei.”

  10. Ash Wednesday is treated in the Church’s calendar as a “Lenten weekday.” Where does one find the readings for the day in the Lectionary — not in the Sunday/Solemnity volume but in the weekday one.
    The Church’s rites allows for at least two ways for ashes to be ritually distributed — at Mass and in a Service (Liturgy) of the Word. (For the latter, see the Book of Blessings. We have tried distributing ashes as part of Vespers for the day, but it honestly just didn’t work — for the people or ritually, in my estimation.
    Trying to come us with a schedule that balances the two ritual norms for the day is a pastoral conundrum. Trying to guess when the faithful would prefer Mass or a “shorter service” is a guessing game. At the same time, here in the Deep South, we have our share of non-Catholic, Christians who desire ashes and, if Mass is being celebrated, leave once they are marked with the ashes. We serve all to the best of our ability.

    1. @Fr. Tom Willis – comment #11:

      In the Table of Liturgical Day, Ash Wednesday ranks after Christmas, Epiphany, Ascension, Pentecost and Sundays of Advent, Lent and Easter, and ahead of other Solemnities on the Calendar. Per say it ranks as a Solemnity, just as in the EF Calendar it ranked as a Feast of 1st Class. It also always has 3 readings. Some conferences of bishops, such as Canada, have chosen to include the reading in the Sundays and Solemnities Lectionary.

  11. I never fully understood why the ash-blessing has overtaken the Mass as the start of Lent. Is the mark a sign of a tribal affiliation of being a Catholic? Are the ashes earnestly desired because they help a person fit in (even Protestants who work with Catholics or live in heavily Catholic areas?) I don’t understand at all. We cannot be jejunia without the instruction of the collects.

    Wouldn’t it be better to preach that the proper start to Lent is the Mass? It is through the Ash Wednesday Mass and the Masses of Lent where we learn the virtue of Christian self-sacrifice. Showing up to get the ash and the returning on Easter is rather like sitting down to an edwardian feast without of first eating vegetable soup as an exercise in thoughtful preparation.

  12. I think the popularity of ashes defy a comprehensive explanation.

    Which is fine by me.

    Then again, the last time I received ashes was in the 1990s, and I never received them consistently growing up, because my parents made clear it was our choice whether or not to go to church on Ash Wednesday (fasting and abstinence was not optional, however).

    Ash Wednesday is a very solemn day in the second rank after the Triduum (all of the days of the Easter Octave are solemnities, so a higher ranking day like Ash Wednesday is equivalent to a solemnity). All Souls Day is the interesting odd duck the third rank.

    1. The Paschal Triduum of the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord.

    2. The Nativity of the Lord, the Epiphany, the Ascension, and Pentecost.
    Sundays of Advent, Lent, and Easter.
    Ash Wednesday.
    Weekdays of Holy Week from Monday up to and including Thursday.
    Days within the Octave of Easter.

    3. Solemnities inscribed in the General Calendar, whether of the Lord, of the Blessed Virgin Mary or of Saints.
    The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.

  13. Yes, Yes, Yes, for a variety of reasons. Some who are not well connected with the church are not ready for the richness of the Eucharist. Some who are not Catholic come with their family or friends. What a wonderful opportunity to invite people to pray together where there are no distinctions and no restrictions. All that is needed is a spirit of repentance! It is also a day when it is good to have as many parish staff and volunteers around to make people feel welcome, and to answer questions.

    For practical reasons in large Latino parishes I’ve served one can celebrate masses in the morning and at noon but it’s impossible latter with the hugh numbers. Basically starting with a service at 3pm in the church the doors would be shut and the service begin, people would then be directed to the hall, when it was full the doors would be shut and the service begin. It would go back and forth like that for the next six + hours with about 12 – 14 services. The priests would lead three, services and one mass, the Sister and lay people would also preside at other services. There would be some music at all the services.

    It may not appear in the books, but for the people it is a high holy day. In one parish were the rush was so great we anticipated with a “vigil” service the night before. While it might not have been kosher it enabled us to have a simple mass for several hundred people with no jam in the parking lot, no hassle. A lot of attendees were the frail, the elderly, those who needed younger people to drive them after the younger ones finished work. They could not have battled the holy chaos the next evening.

  14. Too seldom is the Mass seen as the sealing/renewal of our Covenant with God in the Blood of Christ. The Mass has been the “kick off” event for school years, the forum to honor benefactors, the communal “all purpose liturgy”. But how often do we think Covenant? The sacrifice of the Lamb? Atonement?
    Making use of other forms of worship is not to value to Mass/Eucharist less but to honor to Eucharist in the manner Jesus instituted.
    So, for Ash Wednesday, a liturgy of the Word calling to repentence responded to with the imposition of ashes seems to be the appropriate form of worship for the occassion.

    1. @John Swencki – comment #16:
      I think one of the things we did not inherit in our observance of Lent in the Western Church were proper non-Eucharistic liturgies that set the season apart from the more festal atmosphere of, say, Easter. One may take the cue from the Eastern Churches where Wednesdays and Fridays outside of particular feasts are marked with the celebration of communion from the reserved Eucharist (or Presanctified Gifts) combined with Evening Prayer or Vespers.

      I agree that one unintended consequence of liturgical reform is that we swung the pendulum too far in favor of the Mass that we treat it too casually. It may be the highest and best form of prayer but it does not negate other forms, such as the Liturgy of the Hours and other prayer services, which ought to be encouraged. These may even be more appropriate in more ecumenical settings.

  15. I find it interesting that some protestant and nondenominational churches take creative approaches to distributing ashes. Some offer extended hours where you can stop by at any time to receive ashes and pray with a minister, others distribute ashes to those who want them in public places such as street corners, others do drive-throughs. I wouldn’t want to cancel our traditional Ash Wednesday services to do this instead, but I wonder if we could reach people who otherwise would not feel comfortable going to a scheduled Mass in church.

  16. Thank you for this post!
    When I was serving in college campus ministry, Ash Wednesday was a wonderful opportunity for ecumenical prayer. The other Christian ministers and I (our priest campus minister presided at our two Masses) would share a Liturgy of the Word and Distribution of Ashes on campus, usually around noon. It was an entirely positive experience. It also gave me the opportunity for ‘sharing a reflection on the Scriptures’ before the rules were made so much more constrictive.

    I just came from helping distribute ashes at my parish’s noon Liturgy of the Word (3 other Masses scheduled today)- and after the service, one woman, with great worry on her face, asked me why we didn’t have a Mass. No explanation would soothe her, I’m afraid.

  17. Yesterday, our parish had a schedule of three Masses, with ashes blessed after the homily and imposed after the “Ite, missa est.” We also had three services of the Word, with ashes placed on foreheads. The always-willing-and-ready em’s assisted priests and deacon. For me, the surprise was that the staff of ushers had already been readied to take up a collection, neither announced in the Sunday bulletin nor with an explanation whether the ordinary would assess his tax or where the collection was going.

    1. @Joe McMahon – comment #22:
      Its Florida in the winter. There are many parishes bigger than this. Come on down sometime and realize where all those people from up north are during the winter and why there are so many empty pews. Its tough to build up a parish community liturgically and spiritually when everyone is coming and going at the same time.

  18. From an urban Lutheran perspective, because we have a Lutheran high school, the “owner” of the parish, we had a Liturgy of the Word with Imposition of Ashes by the Presider and several teachers (men and women). The high school students left and the congregation continued with the celebration of the “rest of the Mass” sans students.

    I am thinking that next year I will just do the Liturgy of the Word and Ashes for the whole community. I guess I have always been so Eucharistically centered that I can’t remember the last time our parish had a liturgy that was not the Mass. Hmmmmm

  19. I see that there is a rubric in the Missal for Ash Wednesday describing the order of service for when the blessing and distribution of ashes takes place outside Mass. The rubric doesn’t say so explicitly, but it seems to presume that an ordained minister would preside. Is there any lawful reason that a layperson couldn’t lead such a celebration?

    1. @Jim Pauwels – comment #24:
      Sacrosanctum Concilium did foresee that ‘some sacramental, at least in special circumstances and at the discretion of the ordinary, may be administered by qualified lay persons’. And there’s no reason a non-Catholic couldn’t get ashes either.

      When I was a kid the priest used to come round our parochial school classrooms and distribute ashes. But what I like about having them at mass is you get to listen to the reading about how you shouldn’t go around with ashes on your head. It’s a nice bit of irony, and I’m sure is intended to remind us that we’re all a load of hypocrites. Just like on Palm Sunday, when the people get the to say all the bad people’s parts.

      This year I went up to the local SSPX mass centre and got my ashes under the old rite. I reckon they work better than the vernacular kind.

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