Bishop Richard J. Malone and many other diocesan clergy and laypeople distributed ashes at a packed St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown Buffalo on March 1, Ash Wednesday. Before blessing the ashes and proceeding with the Mass, the bishop likened the occasion, the beginning of the Lenten season, to a period in which Catholics must not forget the spiritual significance of their faith in their lives.
"I have said that we really should call Ash Wednesday Mercy Wednesday, because God is showing us His mercy and calling us to come deeper into His love," Bishop Malone remarked. "My little theme for today, as we enter into another Lenten period, is that this is the Church's springtime. A springtime of the spirit, in that we allow God's grace to open us up to take a look at ourselves, to realize how loved we are."
The bishop told the congregation this period of holy fasting should be one in which the faithful should be "armed with weapons of self-restraint" in battles against spiritual evil. He shared a story from when he learned an important lesson about life and Lent as a younger man serving in New England, one of being careful not to develop "amnesia" when it comes to remembering the importance of the season.
"Years ago, when I was a young priest in a parish back in Boston, I was called one day to minister to a young married couple who had gotten themselves into a terrible car accident," the bishop recalled. "They had driven into the rear of an 18-wheeler. When I got to the hospital, the young wife was scratched up and shaken, but was basically okay. The husband was in desperate condition. They were working to keep him alive."
Over the next few days, the husband began to show signs of recovery. However, it was not until he had regained consciousness that he, the doctors, and his wife realized he had developed amnesia as a result of a blow he suffered to his head in the crash. Bishop Malone recalled how some time later, when he was visiting patients in the hospital where the young man was, the wife was in tears outside his room.
The bishop was very puzzled by this, since the last he heard, the husband's condition had been getting steadily better. After speaking with the wife, who confirmed he was "getting better by the hour," she was saddened to tell him that because of the amnesia, her spouse had forgotten about some of the most important memories of their lives, such as how they met, married and other significant life events.
"She spoke the words that I've taken with me ever since. She said, 'It's the amnesia that is getting to me. He has forgotten so many of the most important things.' So, we went down to the cafeteria, and she poured out her heart about how awful it was to imagine that that time, a lot of his recollection of their relationship, the history they had gathered together of falling in love, was just a blur," the bishop recalled.
In time, the man's memory did come back, and Bishop Malone jested that he would not have told such a sad story on Ash Wednesday if it ended up having a sad ending. However, he stressed that he told this story because it served as a reminder that Catholics must identify, and push out of their lives, any amnesia concerning the most important aspects of faith, including God's unconditional love for His followers.
"Sometimes we don't respond as well to God's love as we should, whether in the attention that we give to God - our prayer, our worship - or the compassion and love that we extend to one another on this earth," the bishop concluded his homily. "In the second reading, St. Paul said now is the acceptable time. Let us look into our lives, identify the forgetfulness, remember with God's grace, and move forward."