Excerpt from Hope from the Ashes by Paul E. Jarzembowski (Paulist Press, 2022)
The stories of many active churchgoers on Ash Wednesday are surprisingly similar. Each of us could probably recount our own stories of Ash Wednesdays past. After months of seeing the same faces in our pews, we often are greeted on the first day of Lent by faces unfamiliar to us. We probably are used to seeing a certain number of people inside our churches, but on this midwinter Wednesday, our churches, community centers, cathedrals, and parking lots are bursting with visitors.
This phenomenon has become more noticeable and has taken on added significance in recent years, as weekly church attendance has dramatically declined and religious disaffiliation is on the rise, especially among young adults in their twenties and thirties. While the number of active members and regular Sunday churchgoers has certainly diminished, the number of people receiving ashes on the first day of Lent still remains very high – and in some instances, has even increased among the younger generations. In the Roman Catholic Church, while less than one in every four adults comes to church on a weekly basis, almost half attend Ash Wednesday services annually.
Each year, local communities recognize this stunning phenomenon, scheduling additional church services to accommodate the anticipated number of attendees. My mother, who has served as office manager for her church in northwest Indiana for three decades, has first-hand experience of this. She told me, “Through all of this time, I have found that one of my busiest phone times is the week before Ash Wednesday. It seems everyone wants to have ashes on the forehead. This is even busier than Christmas or Easter!” Church offices like hers are often flooded by phone calls and emails from people asking questions like “What time are ashes?” or “Will the ashes be given out before, during, or after the service?”
This phenomenon of increased participation is not limited to Ash Wednesday. The whole season of Lent is impacted. A Catholic research group at Georgetown University noted the following:
Among Catholics who attend Mass at least once a month, those of the youngest generation, the Millennials, are the most likely to observe Lenten practices. More than nine in ten of these Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays (91 percent) and receive ashes on Ash Wednesday (91 percent). About three-quarters of these young Mass-attending Catholics (74 percent) also give up something during Lent (besides meat on Fridays). A similar percentage (75 percent) make other extra positive efforts.
Among Christians who join a church or attend worship services even less frequently, Ash Wednesday and Lenten customs are still incredibly popular. One in four will still attempt to do something positive for the forty days following Ash Wednesday, and over 40 percent of those same individuals abstain from eating meat during the Fridays of Lent. Given the sobering trends experienced by many churches today, Ash Wednesday and Lent truly stand out as occasions of connection.
The hurdles we face are massive and we can often feel hopeless before them: record-breaking disaffiliation of individuals from religious institutions and communities; a crippling surge of personal struggles afflicting people today from racism and poverty to mental health challenges and broken relationships; and limited church and human resources to respond in a comprehensive way to any, if not all, of these concerns. To turn the tide of these realities will not occur after one or two attempts. It will take consistent effort, year after year. But there is hope, and that hope can be found in the ashes.
People’s confidence in religion or religious groups has been strained after decades of that trust being broken for a variety of reasons. It is not impossible to change that reality, but it does require a re-establishment of that trust. To regain it, the very reason for embarking on this journey must be sincere and without ulterior motives. In other words, the result of this missionary endeavor should not just be an increase in Sunday collections, nor a refilling of the pews, even if that sobering reality may initially spur us to do this work. Rather, to truly gain a person’s trust, our motives must be pure, our hearts must not be hardened. We reimagine our approach on Ash Wednesday and Lent and throughout the year because we want to enter into a relationship with other travelers along the road, to give them a sense of belonging, and to share with them the Good News that Jesus Christ can bring to a weary world.
So how can that one moment of return transform your community for the rest of the year?
The rest of this book further explores the Ash Wednesday and Lenten phenomenon that millions of people, many who are generally inactive in the practice of their faith, come back to church to receive ashes and engage in Lenten customs every year. The book will also reveal why these momentary experiences are still occasions of hope for pastors, church leaders, and families. By offering practical ideas on what parishes, communities, and individual churchgoers can do to respond in a spirit of compassion, pastoral care, and intentional accompaniment. Through the lens of the Ash Wednesday readings, Hope from the Ashes will help readers understand what they can do in preparation for Lent and beyond – to transform these moments of return into milestones along the journey of faith.
Hope from the Ashes is now available through Paulist Press. Bulk orders are recommended for pastoral councils, small groups, and leadership teams at the parish, campus, or diocese: https://www.paulistpress.com/Products/5575-0/hope-from-the-ashes.aspx.
 Mark M. Gray, “Sacraments Today Updated,” 1964: Nineteen Sixty-Four (blog), Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, August 16, 2016, http://nineteensixty-four.blogspot.com/2016/08/sacraments-today-updated.html.
 Patricia Jarzembowski (office manager, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Dyer, IN), email message to the author, February 2, 2021.
 Mark M. Gray and Paul M. Perl, Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice among U.S. Catholics (Washington, DC: CARA at Georgetown University, April 2008), 86, https://cara.georgetown.edu/sacramentsreport.pdf.
 Gray and Perl, Sacraments Today, 86.
Image: Mass on Ash Wednesday in St George’s Cathedral presided by Archbishop John Wilson. © Mazur/cbcew.org.uk. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). https://flic.kr/p/2iy5mWq.
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Paul E. Jarzembowski is the author of Hope from the Ashes: Insights and Resources for Welcoming Lenten Visitors (2022) from Paulist Press. He serves on staff at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Washington DC, within the Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, and has been actively involved in the leadership of several USCCB initiatives including World Youth Day, the Convocation of Catholic Leaders, the Fifth National Encuentro, the Synods on Young People and on Synodality, Journeying Together, and the Eucharistic Revival. Paul is also a national and an international leader in the Church’s pastoral work with youth, young adults, and the laity, consulting with and speaking for dioceses, eparchies, parishes, colleges and universities, religious communities, digital ministries, and conferences around the world.