A priest’s Ash Wednesday

— Fr Tom Hayes, PP Enniskeane and Desertserges.

It’s one of the rituals that only comes around once a year in a priest’s life but no two Ash Wednesdays are the same.

This year, mine began with an earlier than usual visit to the church to toll the church tower bell. It’s automated but it wasn’t programmed to ring today at 8.05am.

Soon after that time on this day last year I received a phone call from a workplace in our parish to tell me that there had been a fatal accident. Today, one year later, his employers and work colleagues wanted to simply mark the moment by pausing their work and remembering Pat as the bell tolled.

Blessed ashes placed on our foreheads to mark Ash Wednesday

As I left the church, I turned on the heat to get the church warm for the congregation arriving for the 10am Mass at which ashes would be blessed. I returned to the parochial house, stopping to pray at the graveside’s of the two young people who died this time last year.

The church was almost full for the 10am Mass. With the help of Maureen in the sacristy, we readied the church for Mass, placing a small table with bowls of ashes in front of the altar. The children and staff of the local national school would also join us on this special day. Soon, their excited arrival percolated through the more solemn praying of the rosary by the regular adults.

I asked the sixth-class teacher if some of her class could serve as altar servers and quick as a flash a rush of hands went up! The four volunteers are experienced altar servers and really enjoy their service and take pride in doing it.

Fr Richard, a retired priest who lives locally, joined me to concelebrate the Mass and also assists with the distribution of ashes. There are three lines in the church at this point — one in front of each priest, and one at the place where the extra ashes are available to be collected to be taken away. People come with an envelope, or a small box, or a folded handkerchief, to spoon a small amount into their bag or pocket to take home or to work for family members.

After Mass, I return to the parochial house and log into my email account. A colleague priest will soon be celebrating a sad liturgy for a teenage girl who died in a car crash in Cork. The Mass has drawn significant media attention.

Excerpt from the Examiner’s news story

I’ve been asked by the diocesan office to support Fr. Greg with media relations so he can concentrate on his pastoral support for the family involved. Having previously served the diocesan communications role, I’m happy to help out when I can. I send an email to each of the local news media attaching the text of Fr Greg’s homily so that they will have a faithful record it for use in their stories about the funeral. I had prepared the text for distribution last evening.

Time to get out to the other three primary schools with some of the ashes for the children and staff but with thoughts of the family and my colleague on my mind. When I arrive at Coppeen, I notice a missed call from the principal and I hear music coming out from the school! The children are all lined up and ready but I’m later that I had promised so some of the older children entertain them with music while they await the ashes of Lent.

There’s an air of excitement among the children as I tell them where the ashes came from and talk about the third class’ link with last year’s Palm Sunday when they held the palms. As the ashes are placed on them they compare crosses and the younger ones giggle with excitement.

Next stop is Ahiohill NS on the south side of the parish. As I park the car I see Mgr Aidan O’Driscoll heading for the door of the school. He is due to officiate at a Confirmation Ceremony in the parish next week and he is calling in to meet the children who will be confirmed. But it’s lunch time at the school and no one is where they are supposed to be! The class teacher arrives back to the room having only taken a bite out of her lunch and Mgr Aidan proceeds to talk to the children about the importance of their day next week.

I postpone my ashes liturgy to give the Mgr and the staff a chance so I wander into the staff room where the other staff are trying to grab a bite to eat while Noelle is working on the booklet for the Confirmation Mass for next week and we chat about proofing it. We all agree that we should try and give up stress for Lent! Easier said than done!

After the liturgy with the boys and girls of Ahiohill it’s time to get back in the car to drive to Kilcolman school and answer a couple of phone calls on the way. By the time I arrive in Kilcolman, the youngest children have already gone home and those who remain congregate in the senior room to pray and receive the ashes.

I take a few photographs of the children and staff with ashes on but these can’t be published. (Their enthusiasm is visible in the photos!) Instead, I upload the images from the camera to my phone and email them to the principal. A few seconds later, she has received them and uploads them to the white board for the children to admire themselves — and comment! And they all think this is how it has always been! And it strikes me that I have spend the day, so far, placing ashes on an IT generation.

Outside the school gate, grandparents and parents are gathering to collect the children but they mostly sit in their individual vehicles and wait. Time for me to move before more arrive.

Time now for my one whole meal today and I return to base to turn on the oven and heat up the fish pie I bought yesterday evening. While it’s heating I scan the iPad to see if reports are emerging about the funeral in Cork. The stories I read are respectful and balanced. The journalist have taken the trouble to be at the funeral and they have also respected the family’s wishes that they not be photographed or video-recorded at the funeral. Fr Greg’s homily is quoted extensively and I hope it’ll be supportive of the family and the whole community.

After lunch, time to answer more emails and phone-calls. A half-hour of quiet thinking and praying time is followed by time spent on updates to the diocesan website.

Then I wonder why the builders who are working at the church steeple have not turned up today or yesterday. And we have a Confirmation ceremony there next week! Another email called for!

Time to tune in to the 6pm news bulletins to see how they covered the funeral. A quick cuppa. Time to prepare for the evening Mass and blessing of ashes at Castletown Kinneigh Church.

St. Joseph’s Church, Castletown Kinneigh

The last Mass of the day is followed by two home visits: one to a bereaved family and one to a home where a young person is unwell.

There are so many ways to be open to the life-giving light and presence of the Lord and so many ways to be grateful that he has placed me here in these moments.