Ash Wednesday brings Catholics back to church in Philadelphia

Attendance at Ash Wednesday services in Philadelphia doubled compared to last year, a sign that the faithful might be feeling better about in-person worship.

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. (Tom MacDonald / WHYY)

A 40-day period of prayer, fasting, and sacrifice is underway in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Ash Wednesday started early at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Center City with about a hundred of the Catholic faithful receiving an ash cross on their forehead made from burning the previous Palm Sunday palm.

Father Dennis Gill, Rector of the Cathedral, said that he’s seen an increase in people coming to mass, and this year’s early morning Ash Wednesday service had about twice the attendance of the year before, when pandemic restrictions were still in place.

Gill said nothing replaces in-person mass for Catholics, and the concern for people assembling together has dissipated quite a bit as evidenced by the steady increase of worshippers attending church services.

This year about half of those in the Cathedral’s chapel, which is used for the early morning mass, were maskless.

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Fr. Gill said Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the 40-days of Lent, the Catholic tradition which mandates fasting and abstaining from meat for those from the age of 18 to 59. The ashes are a secondary aspect of Lent, Gill said, with the most important aspect being prayer and reflection in preparation for the Easter season ahead.

Taylor Fleming came to the 7:15 a.m. mass to “start the season of Lent in person.” She added that it’s a tradition in her family having grown up Catholic.

The abstaining from meat continues until Good Friday, April 15th. Tradition dictates giving up something for Lent. Fleming said she is giving up candy and other sweets as she does every year and plans to expand this year by also giving up on social media so she can be more present in the moment.

This year Pope Francis has assigned Ash Wednesday as a “Day of Fasting for Peace” for Ukraine, and Gill said the Pope called on people to pray for peace in Europe as part of their day.

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