Those ashes you’ll be seeing today on a few foreheads? They’re a bold and welcome public statement about something we’re told we should be quiet about — religion.
Today is Ash Wednesday, and Catholics (as well as a few Protestant denominations) mark the start of Lent in a quite literal way, with ashes on the foreheads of the faithful.
It’s a relatively quiet “statement” in these loud and strident times. But just as we’re being told it’s unfashionable and even offensive to declare our own faiths in public, the wearing of that simple sign indicates both conviction and courage.
Last year, Ash Wednesday came just two days after Pope Benedict XVI announced he was stepping down. It’s instructive to think about that decision, in light of the season.
“Pope Benedict XVI is to resign at the end of this month after nearly eight years as the head of the Catholic Church, saying he is too old to continue at the age of 85,” the BBC reported. “The unexpected development — the first papal resignation in nearly 600 years — surprised governments, Vatican-watchers and even his closest aides.”
You’ll recall that Benedict, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, became pope in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II.
His resignation was a move that shows just the sort of humility the season calls for.
The observance of Lent, a time of self-denial as well as self-reflection, helps to remind us of our own weaknesses. Benedict’s acknowledgement shows he’s deeply aware that he’s only human, and a frail human at that.
“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” he said in a statement. “... In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to steer the ship of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
John Moody, an editor at Fox News, is a former Time magazine correspondent to the Vatican. He says Benedict was hobbled from the outset by not being his history-making predecessor.
“Benedict faced nearly impossible odds, even before he was elected,” Moody observed. “Joseph Ratzinger — his given name — was already white-haired and stooped when he became pope ... His idea of a wild night was a single glass of Riesling and an hour of playing his piano.”
But his decision to step down demonstrates that his spirit is just as strong.
“His decision to resign was a brave one, based on personal humility, in keeping with his message to the faithful that the things of Earth are transient, but the promise of heaven lasting and infinite,” Moody wrote.
Like those wearing their ashes today, he showed courage and self-denial. That’s the message of Lent.