Cardinal Donald Wuerl urged the faithful of the Archdiocese of Washington to “draw closer to Jesus and draw closer to His Gospel” as they marked the March 6 start of Lent by attending Ash Wednesday Masses and beginning their spiritual preparations for Easter.

“Even in our frailty, even in our failure, we hear God call us to return to Him,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “God desires not the death of sinners, but their conversion. God asks us to come back with our hearts open to His mercy.”

Cardinal Wuerl, the apostolic administrator of the archdiocese, was the principal celebrant and homilist and distributed ashes during the midday Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. Concelebrants included Msgr. W. Ronald Jameson, rector of the cathedral, and four other priests.

Cardinal Wuerl blesses the ashes at a March 6 Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral in the nation's capital. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

The faithful filled the cathedral, its side chapels and aisles to receive ashes on their foreheads and to be reminded, “you are dust and to dust you shall return” or to be admonished “to repent and believe in the Gospel.”

A woman prays during an Ash Wednesday Mass on March 6 at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

“The ashes proclaim that with God’s grace we can make all things new, beginning with ourselves,” Cardinal Wuerl said, adding that the ashes the faithful receive on their foreheads are “a visible sign of contrition.”

Cardinal Wuerl reminded the faithful that they should not hesitate to turn to God and His mercy.

“We take as our consolation, knowing as great as our failures are, God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s compassion and God’s forgiveness are even greater,” he said. “It is God who continually calls, it is God who continually waits, it is God’s mercy that forgives.”

The Mass was one of seven offered at the cathedral for Ash Wednesday.

“Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint,” the cardinal prayed.

In reminding the faithful that “the ashes proclaim that with God’s grace we can make all things new,” the cardinal said the ashes “are also a sign of God working within us.” He said Lent is the time “to share the forgiveness that we receive … (and) reconcile with those we have offended.”

People pray during an Ash Wednesday Mass on March 6 at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

“I am going to take to heart that we must reach out to others,” said Mass-goer Donato Foglio. “I like what he (Cardinal Wuerl) said about God forgiving us and that means we should forgive others.”

Jackie Quinn, who also attended the Mass, said receiving ashes on her forehead “reminds me and those who see (the ashes) that God forgives.”

The Ash Wednesday Liturgy marks the start of Lent, the 40-day penitential period of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in preparation for Easter. Lent continues until Good Friday, April 19. Easter this year will be celebrated on Sunday, April 21.

All Fridays of Lent are days of total abstinence from meat, a law that binds all Catholics age 14 and older. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of total abstinence from meat and a day of fast, that is, people are limited to one single full meal on those days. The law of fasting binds all Catholics from their 18th year until and including their 59th birthday.

During the Ash Wednesday Mass, Cardinal Wuerl prayed to God that “these days (of Lent) prepare us for the resurrection of your son, who is Lord.”

This Lent marks the 12th year that the Archdiocese of Washington has sponsored the “The Light is On For You” campaign to help the faithful receive the Sacrament of Confession. It was established by then-Archbishop Donald Wuerl in this archdiocese in 2007.

Through the program, Catholic churches in the Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Arlington will be open for Confessions and quiet prayer every Wednesday evening, in addition to the regularly scheduled Confessions held in each parish.

The remaining Wednesdays of Lent are March 13, 20, 27 and April 3, 10 and 17. During the hours when Confessions are being heard, many parishes also offer Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Another practice encouraged during this penitential season is participation in Operation Rice Bowl, the 43-year-old Lenten program for Catholic Relief Services. It offers U.S. Catholics in the United States a way to assist those in need around the world. In addition to supporting CRS’s global work, the program also returns a portion of the annual collection to support the charitable work of the local Church.

In his Lenten message for this year, Pope Francis called on the faithful to be concerned for one another and to “leave behind our selfishness and self-absorption, and turn to Jesus… Let us stand beside our brothers and sisters in need, sharing our spiritual and material goods with them.” 

Cardinal Wuerl gives Communion to a man during a March 6 Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)