Church, Mission

How to Step Outside Yourself this Ash Wednesday

It’s coming. Lent starts in less than two weeks on Ash Wednesday. For most Newman centers, more people show up on Ash Wednesday than any other day of the year. There’s something about this day that draws so many to the closest church, even if they haven’t gone to Mass all year. 

To try to figure out what that something is and how we jump on the evangelization opportunities Ash Wednesday presents, I interviewed four chaplains. I interviewed them separately, but below present the interviews in the style of a catena, a style of Biblical commentary made by stitching together earlier commentaries into one cohesive, almost conversational, commentary. 

Let’s meet our priests:

Fr. Dan O’Reilley Chaplain at Columbia University New York, New York 

Fr. Peter Nassetta Chaplain at James Madison University Harrisonburg, Virginia

Fr. Jim Chern Chaplain at Montclair State University Montclair, New Jersey

Fr. Luke Spannagel Chaplain at The University of Illinois Champaign, Illinois

And on to the questions!

Why do people come out of the woodwork on Ash Wednesday?

Fr. Dan - It's a fascinating thing - if people come to Mass just once a year, it's not Christmas...it's Ash Wednesday! 

Fr. Jim - It’s a big part of Catholic identity, even if they’re not active in their faith, they “gotta get their ashes.” Like on the Fourth of July, it’s “I gotta go to the fireworks.”

Fr. Peter - You know, it’s a symbol of death, and it’s a symbol of our mortality, and yet there’s something about it, that captures the catholic imagination, and people are drawn to it.

Fr. Dan - It's fascinating, because the message of Ash Wednesday and Lent is that we are sinners, we need forgiveness, and we need redemption. Even those who don't normally practice their faith recognize that and they want to participate. It's a sign of holy longing within the Christian soul - a longing for mercy and a longing for salvation.

Fr. Luke - You know, deep in our hearts maybe we do have that longing to just be honest about our sins, to be forgiven, and be free. But maybe most of us don’t know how to do it on a regular basis. 

How do you let people know about Ash Wednesday on campus? 

Fr. Luke - We use our social media channels, send a message to our email list, and put the Ash Wednesday schedule on the big sign outside the Newman Center.

Fr. Dan - We’ve had students holding signs saying where they can get ashes. That was a big success.

Fr. Jim - We do a lot of promotion ahead of time. With other groups and organizations on campus, we co-sponsor a Mardi Gras party, and at some point in the night, get up and give a really quick promo for Ash Wednesday, you know, that we’re feasting before the fast and that Lent starts tomorrow on Ash Wednesday, and tell them when Masses are, that kind of thing. Students also wear T-shirts with the Mass times on them.

Fr. Peter - In terms of getting people to come, sometimes students and the FOCUS missionaries have gone out on campus the day before, giving out cookies or hot chocolate with a little paper that had the Ash Wednesday Mass times on it. 

Tell us about how Ash Wednesday looks like on your campus.

Fr. Jim - We build our Mass schedule around when students will be free, and really work to claim the day in Catholic identity. We make sure we’re being very warm and welcoming. Our student leaders are out trying to meet people and make connections after Mass.

Fr. Peter - I gear my homily towards the people who I am, very possibly, not going to see again for quite some time. People who come to Ash Wednesday even though they may not go to Mass regularly on Sundays, they’re usually doing something for Lent, giving something up, doing something extra. I tell them one of the best things they can do for Lent is to come to Mass on Sundays. Forget about giving up chocolate or Diet Coke, and come to Mass on Sunday; that would be far more important and far more beneficial than anything else they might do.

Fr. Jim - We have extra confession times before and after every Mass. Sometimes when someone comes wandering in, looking for how they can get their ashes, I’ll ask them, “Are you here for confession?” They’ll say, “I was just looking to get my ashes, but actually, I probably should go,” and then they’re talking with a priest for maybe, 20 minutes, and they end up getting a lot more than just some ashes on their forehead.

Fr. Luke - Some years, we’ve said something like, “Some folks here might have been away for a while, we’re glad to have you’re back. if anybody wants to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we’ll be in the back after Mass.” Just make the invitation. My experience has been that there’s always been an hour’s worth of people that take me up on that.

Fr. Peter - We have a short registration card, that we put out for both faculty and students. If we don’t have their contact information, hopefully we get it there. That gives us a way to reconnect. We also have sign-ups for a Lenten Bible study. If people are not in a regular Bible study, this is something I recommend they do: join a bible study, just for Lent. We’ve done that with both students and faculty; the faculty one’s lead by one of our staff members at the Newman center. We’ve also given away different things over the years. They don’t get us names and information, but hopefully we’re giving people some connection to the faith. Every year we give out The Word Among Us on Ash Wednesday, so people leave with something that will hopefully be meaningful for them during Lent. We’ve done other giveaways, buttons, pins, stuff like that. Remember how people used to have those rubber bands around their wrists? We had a Lenten one, but they’re not cool anymore, so that one doesn’t work.

What do we need to keep in mind about the opportunities for evangelization provided by this surge of people on Ash Wednesday?

Fr. Jim - These people are coming around because at some point in their lives, they came to church and there’s something that stuck. We need to gently engage them. Figure out where they’re at with things, figure out where they’re coming from.

Fr. Dan - I think it's important to welcome everyone, explain the meaning of the ritual, and invite people to make Mass a part of their Lenten practices.

Fr. Peter - Sometimes people, or the priest, or whoever, give people a hard time when they show up, whether it’s Christmas or Ash Wednesday, or Easter. We get on their case for not being here more often. Instead of doing that, we need to be welcoming. There’s something there, in the hearts of people who come on Ash Wednesday. So we should do whatever we can do build on that, to help them recognize that whatever’s drawing them there that day, isn’t nothing. It’s something, there’s something there. They want something more, there’s something they’re longing for, there’s something that’s there, and we need to help them to see that. It’s not just about that one day, but there’s something inside of them that wants more.

Fr. Dan - The worst thing to do is to use sarcasm or joke about those who normally don't attend Mass. 

Fr. Luke - If there’s one mistake our budding evangelists make, it’s that sometimes we come on a little strong in that first meeting. We have to pace ourselves. We’re so exited, we know what we’ve got, I just think sometimes it’s just easy to try and knock it out in one day. We need to be content with just trying to build a relationship a little bit more over time, and for me, my mentality, would be if I meet somebody on Ash Wednesday, I just want them to feel like it’s low key enough that they won’t feel scared or intimidated. I want them walking away saying, “You know, that was ok, I could do that again.”

Fr. Dan - We need to keep in mind compassion. Jesus had pity on the crowds who wandered like sheep without a shepherd, so we need to be gentle in guiding the crowds to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. 

Fr. Jim - I think everyone just needs to keep in mind that God has a plan for the day. We need to lose our expectations on what will happen or who we want to reach. God will bring people into your path and you just need to be very intentional about responding to those opportunities. Don’t jump 5 steps ahead. Just because they’re showing up to church on Ash Wednesday doesn’t mean they’re totally sold out on God. Go about it just like you’re meeting someone for the first time at the cafeteria: be welcoming and inviting, make a connection, and follow up with them the next day. 


A BIG thank you to our four chaplains who found time in their busy schedules for interviews. I had a great time interviewing them, and their answers will help a lot of us approach Ash Wednesday this year. I think a few of the takeaways are:

  1. Promote Ash Wednesday 
  2. Get creative 
  3. Be excited about how many people come 
  4. Offer some helpful activities during Lent
  5. Accept the evangelization opprotunities that God presents to you 
  6. Don’t be overexcited, take it slow and build a friendship 

How are you getting ready for Ash Wednesday? What will you be doing on campus for Lent? Let us know in the comments! 

Looking for a Lenten Bible study? Look no further!