People pray after receiving ashes during a March 1 Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. (CS PHOTOS BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN)
People pray after receiving ashes during a March 1 Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. (CS PHOTOS BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN)

Urging the faithful to remember that “God is mercy” and that they should “embrace the compassion of God,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl celebrated a March 1 Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington.

“The ashes are a sign of God’s enduring mercy,” Cardinal Wuerl said.  He added that the ashes – placed on the forehead in the sign of the cross –  “highlights salvation through the mercy of God.”

Cardinal Wuerl was the principal celebrant and homilist and distributed ashes during a midday Mass at the cathedral.  A standing-room-only crowd attended the Mass, one of seven offered at the downtown cathedral that day to mark the start of Lent.

During the Mass, Cardinal Wuerl prayed that “through our steadfast observance of Lent, we gain pardon of our sins and newness of life.”

He also urged those at the Mass not to tire of asking God for forgiveness and mercy. “God is always waiting for us,” he said.

The Mass marked the start of the 40-day penitential period of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in preparation for Easter. Several people who attended the Mass told the Catholic Standard said that they would forego things like sweets as a sign of penance, however, some had other ways to mark the penitential season.

“I am going to be more compassionate and help those in need,” said Kimberly Taylor.

Raymond Brezo, a downtown office worker who said he took his lunch hour to attend the Mass, said it was important for him begin Lent with ashes on his forehead.

“We all have to take time out of our busy-ness to refocus on what is important,” he said. “These ashes remind me of what is important – and that is my relationship to God.”

The cardinal urged those at the Mass to truly live these 40 days “with a Lenten spirit” so that they “become worthy to celebrate devoutly the Passion” of Jesus Christ.

One way the faithful can foster a “Lenten spirit” is through the annual “The Light is On for You” Lenten Confession initiative. Through the program, Catholic churches in the Archdiocese of Washington and 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 15, 22, 29 and April 5. During the hours when Confessions are being heard, many parishes also offer Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Lent continues until Good Friday, April 14. Easter this year will be celebrated on Sunday, April 16.