'To dust we shall return'

Messages of penance and renewal resounded at Holy Family Catholic Church during its noontime Ash Wednesday Mass, signaling the start of the 40-day Lenten season.

The season of Lent gives parishioners a chance to offer repentance for their misdeeds through prayer, fasting and alms giving in anticipation of Easter Sunday, Holy Family Pastor Joseph Shea said.

“We are in need of repentance,” he said. “We’re not perfect and we need to be reminded of that.”

Distributing ashes on the foreheads of the congregation, a tradition that some Christians observe, serves two symbolic purposes, Shea said. Ashes were used as a sign of repentance from sin in the early days of the Christian church, when followers wore sacks and ashes to show penance, he said. And wearing ashes on their foreheads also reminds parishioners of their own mortality and the importance of living and dying in the tradition of Jesus Christ, he added.

“When we receive the ashes, one of the prayer forms we use is, ‘We are dust and to dust we shall return,’” Shea said. “It gives us a chance to talk about life and where we’re going with our lives.”

Sacrifice offered through prayer and fasting is a common formula in many religions of the world, denying corporal and earthly things as a way of connecting to faith in a higher power.

“It’s a way of breaking away from sin . . . the ego-ness and self-centered-ness of our life,” Shea said. “We let God take center stage.”

During the Mass on Wednesday, visiting priest Father John Struzzo shared insights about how to observe the Lenten season, sharpening the idea of giving alms as more than just monetary donations, but giving of one’s self and heart to others.

And commitment to prayer is an important aspect of the season, he said.

“Make sure you pray from the heart,” Struzzo said. “You are not just saying words.”

The pews at Holy Family were nearly filled on Wednesday, as parishioners celebrated Mass and then received their ashes.

“It helps me to refocus and be introspective about things that are going on in my life,” said Los Angeles resident Elena Martinez, 26, who attended the Mass during her lunch break on Wednesday.

Lent also marks the time when men and women planning to convert to Catholicism perform their pre-baptismal retreats and meditations before they are baptized on Easter weekend, Shea said.

“Converts are going through a special time . . . so the whole community sees themselves as going through the same process as we renew our baptismal promises in Christ,” he said.

 CHRIS WIEBE covers public safety and the courts. He may be reached at (818) 637-3232 or at chris.wiebe@latimes.com.

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