Father Bernard N. Mohan was the celebrant of Mass on Ash Wednesday in St. March Church. Rich Hundley photo
Father Bernard N. Mohan was the celebrant of Mass on Ash Wednesday in St. March Church. Rich Hundley photo

On the morning of Ash Wednesday, Joe and Marybeth Walsh had their hearts firmly planted in the hope that comes with the season of Lent.

“We should pray for our Church, and we should pray for our country and recognize that the need for faith – if we’re going to move forward – is extraordinary,” Joe Walsh said. “We need faith in our God, who has said that Satan will not prevail against us as a plague.”

Lent, added Marybeth, his wife of 53 years, “is not just what you should sacrifice but what you should be doing to improve yourself as a person, which in itself, is a sacrifice.”

Photo Gallery: Ash Wednesday in St. Mark Church, Sea Girt

The couple was among those who began their Lenten journey Feb. 17 by attending Mass in St. Mark Church, Sea Girt. They joined Catholic Christians from across the Diocese of Trenton and throughout the world in attending on Ash Wednesday services either in person or online.

Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., in an Ash Wednesday service that was prerecorded and streamed across diocesan media platforms, preached on the meaning of penance.

“What those ashes represent, the symbol, that is our intention and desire to do penance for our sins. And it’s something that remains in our hearts,” he said, recognizing  that the tradition of distributing ashes this year had been altered, either because faithful were unable to attend services in person or because ashes were placed on foreheads with Q-tips due to pandemic safety concerns.

Reflecting on the First Reading, the Bishop preached on how Joel extends the Lord’s invitation to his people to return to him with full hearts through fasting, weeping and mourning.

“Why rend our heart as we return to the Lord? The Prophet Joel tells us why,” Bishop O’Connell said. “The Lord is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, rich in kindness. Showing repentance … can turn God’s judgement to mercy.”

Msgr. Sean P. Flynn, pastor of St. Mark Parish, explained that at first glance, it can seem contradictory to speak of the Lenten practice of self-denial in relation to hope.

“When you think of Lent, you often think of fasting, and that doesn’t sound too hopeful. But really we are journeying with Jesus to Calvary, to the Cross – and it doesn’t end there,” Msgr. Flynn said. “Through the pain, through the suffering, a better day lies ahead – the Resurrection. And it’s the same with the [COVID-19] virus – we’re getting vaccines.”

“We don’t understand all the suffering, the sorrows and the difficulties,” he continued. “We can’t say, ‘I know why this is happening.’ All we can do is say we have faith. It doesn’t answer the ‘why’ of these things, but it gives us the strength to cope with them. … And Lent helps us look forward to the fact that there is more to come than this life offers.”

That sentiment was one in which Joe Walsh could relate. “Lent is a time to reflect on the things you can improve on in your life and understand that you are probably going to fail a couple of times during the 40 days – but to pick yourself up and keep going.”

Indeed, persistence, Msgr. Flynn said, is an opportunity to focus on one’s direction in life. As such, he advised the faithful not to allow the pandemic to encroach on the spirituality of Lent. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving can be accomplished in the home as well as in the pews.

“Remember, we can pray anytime, in any situation – and we tend to pray more when we’re going through difficulties. Lent is not just for denying ourselves something, but for positive things like spending more time reading the Bible, or other spiritual books. We can help others in need, even in our own families, and be more patient and compassionate.

“This is a time to transform our lives and try to become the people we should be but often don’t work on becoming,” he said.

Video interviews by photographer Rich Hundley contributed to this report.