“Repent and believe in the gospel.”
These were the words told to the faithful by the Rev. John Sotak and others as they distributed ashes at noon Ash Wednesday at Saint Xavier University in Chicago’s Mount Greenwood neighborhood.
The McDonough Chapel filled to capacity for the service at 3700 W. 103rd St. Students, faculty and community members lined up to receive the sign of the cross on their foreheads in ashes.
“I just always go to Ash Wednesday services to say, ‘hey, I’m Catholic, and I’m not afraid to show it,’ ” said Katie Manika, who arrived in a wheelchair pushed by her twin sister, Christine.
Katie Manika injured her ankle playing soccer. But that didn’t keep the Saint Xavier senior from attending the Mass with more than 250 others at the on-campus chapel.
Ash Wednesday is observed annually as the start of the Lenten season for many Christians. Besides church services, the day is traditionally marked by fasting, almsgiving and prayer.
Many Catholics also observe the long-held practice of avoiding meat consumption on this day as well as on Fridays during Lent. Others abstain from something they enjoy or dedicate themselves to charity throughout the religious season that ends on Easter Sunday.
Christine Manika, 22, said she was going to give up cursing for Lent. Her sister vowed to simply “be a better me.”
Sister Carol Mucha is the spiritual director at Saint Xavier and said Ash Wednesday is typically one of the busiest days in the chapel. She said students knock on her door seeking ashes all day long.
“I think people are hungry for the spiritual, and this is a golden opportunity,” Mucha said, referencing the standing-room crowd at Saint Xavier’s chapel.
This year, Ash Wednesday also happens to fall on Valentine’s Day. But the archdioceses of Chicago and Joliet did not offer dispensation for those hungry to share a steak dinner with their beloved.
“In view of the significance of Ash Wednesday, the obligation of fast and abstinence must naturally be the priority in the Catholic community. Valentine’s Day can appropriately be celebrated the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, which also happens to be Mardi Gras, a traditionally festive time before beginning our Lenten observance,” the statement issued last month by the Archdiocese of Chicago said.
Cardinal Blase Cupich took to Twitter Wednesday morning to further remind Catholics of the importance of the Ash Wednesday ritual.
“Ashes placed on our forehead today call us to conversion and that we are dust and to dust we shall return,” Cupich said.
Howard Ludwig is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.