From The Voice: Moment By Moment

Originally published on April 13th, 2018, this article was taken from the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus’s column in The Georgetown Voice, entitled Gaudium et Spes. The column, written by members of the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus, appears online every other Friday.

By: Michael John Poorten

My time on the Hilltop is winding down. People have been telling me for years this moment would come, but when you’re a freshman or sophomore, it’s easy to dismiss this message. Senior year can feel like an impossibly distant future.

Now, suddenly, that future is my present. One of the many items remaining on my senior bucket list is emphasizing to my younger peers how important it is to cherish your time here and not pass up opportunities merely because there’s “plenty of time left.”

When I was growing up, every morning when I’d come downstairs for breakfast I’d find my mother in the kitchen ready to greet me. Most days my father would have already left for work, but he would always leave a note for my siblings and me. Depending on what was happening that day, he would wish us good luck on an exam or sporting event or leave us some other uplifting message. No matter what he wrote, however, he would always end his notes with the phrase, “Enjoy the moment.”

Throughout my childhood, this became ingrained in my mind. I still recall it on many mornings, and it has helped me realize that our lives are nothing more than a series of moments. To my mind, this is an encouraging observation, not a sobering one. But many of these moments can’t happen unless we choose them, and very few will take on any meaning unless we invest in them. Only the moments we choose to seize are the ones that will endure in our memory and ultimately define who we are and how we live. And in order to seize the moment, we must be present in it, which for many requires eliminating the distractions of your devices while with other people and not preoccupying yourself with where you’ll soon be but rather with where you are now.

There is nothing wrong with looking forward to the future—we all do it. We look forward to reunions with friends, birthday celebrations, vacations, weddings, you name it—but we cannot let the moments to come distract us from the moments we have now.

I am often guilty of being so distracted by where I am headed that I lose appreciation—sometimes even cognizance—of my present surroundings. Whether walking through Manhattan to work, past Volta Park on my way to Wisconsin Ave or past all of you on my way to class, there is always something worth discerning in these moments.

The Jesuits live their lives according to the principle of finding God in all things. Because God created the world, He left an indelible mark on all of creation, especially human beings who are made uniquely in his image. When God was incarnate in Christ and died on the cross, He imbued all time and history with the grace of His love, divinity and sacrifice. In a real sense, then, God can be seen and felt everywhere.

This is a great comfort. No matter where we are, God is discoverable right there with us. In light of this, in light of God’s presence, we cannot let our fears and uncertainties about the future distract us from the richness and beauty of our present.

We can always find something to worry about if we think hard enough, which is why we shouldn’t strain ourselves with the effort. The future can be daunting; there’s no way around it. This is especially true when you’re an underclassman, undecided about your major and clueless about what career path to pursue. Many of us have been there. Do not think that you will be able to sit down and figure it all out in a day, a month, or even a year. Life decisions like these are made over long periods of time. In other words, determining our future takes many moments of our present.

In the 16th century, Ignatius of Loyola coined a phrase to help his disciples figure out what God wanted for them in their futures. He taught that God communicates with us through our “holy desires.” Although it takes long periods of reflection to distinguish our holy desires from our ephemeral, self-centered ones, they are manifest to us most forcefully in the daily moments of our lives.

There is plenty to look forward to in our futures and plenty to fear. We cannot know with certainty when we will be gathered together once again with our friends from the Hilltop after graduation. All we can do right now is enjoy the time we have and treasure one another’s company. It is in this joy and self-giving that we will pave the path to our futures.

No matter where your path is leading, you can always find happiness along the way by enjoying the moment.

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From The Voice: The Meaning Of The Crucifix

Gaudium Et Spes: The Meaning Of The Crucifix

Originally published on March 30th, 2018, this article was taken from the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus’s column in The Georgetown Voice, entitled Gaudium et Spes. The column, written by members of the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus, appears online every other Friday.

By: Melvin Thomas

“I do not want to be in a religion in which I am ‘allowed’ to have a crucifix… In people who are Catholics, or call themselves Catholics, I want the idea not only liked but loved and loved ardently, and above all proudly proclaimed.” – G.K. Chesterton

At Georgetown, unlike most universities in the United States, we are surrounded by crosses and crucifixes.

There’s a cross on top of Healy Hall and one on top of White-Gravenor, as well as crucifixes in many classrooms. Many people, irrespective of background, are probably not all that surprised to see so many crosses and crucifixes at the country’s oldest Catholic university; they’ve likely seen their fair share before coming here without giving them a second thought.

I didn’t think too much of them myself until two years ago when my roommate told me he thought they were a “disgusting” symbol. He wondered why Christians are content with depicting the gruesome death of their God. I didn’t know what to say. I had never considered that perspective before, but maybe that was because I had never taken the time to contemplate the significance of the crucifix.

Before we can understand the meaning of the crucifix, let’s look more closely at the man that crucifixes depict. His name was Yeshua, but he is more commonly known by the name of Jesus. What was the crime He committed that warranted crucifixion? He radically threatened the political structures of His time.

We Christians call him “Christ” because we believe him to be the Christos, a Greek translation of the Hebrew word Mashiach (anglicized as Messiah), which means “anointed one.” The Jews had been waiting for the Mashiach since the time of King David, when God promised Israel a king whose reign would never end. Throughout the Babylonian exile and the Roman occupation of Palestine, the Jews hoped for a Mashiach to overthrow their captors, defeat their enemies, and establish the supremacy of the throne of David forever. He was supposed to be a mighty figure who would conquer the world.

Now this doesn’t sound much like Jesus at all. Instead of overthrowing the Roman Empire, Jesus told the Jews to continue paying their taxes (Matthew 22:21). Instead of conquering enemies, Jesus told His followers to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors (Matthew 5:44). While some Jews accepted Jesus as the Mashiach and became the first Christians, others didn’t. Some in the elite brought Him to the Romans, who heard the Mashiach was to start a revolt against their empire.

And so Jesus was executed around the age of 33 by means of crucifixion, the most torturous method of execution devised by the Roman Empire. Instead of Jesus conquering the world, the world conquered Him on the cross. Sounds like a spectacular failure, doesn’t it?

Perhaps not. In Christianity, we believe Jesus’s death redeems us from sin and saves us from death by offering us eternal life. Put another way, through His death and resurrection, Jesus conquered death. We don’t call Jesus the Mashiach because He saved Israel from her captors, the Roman Empire, but because He saved all of humanity from its captor, death. By offering us eternal life in heaven, He does indeed establish a kingdom that will never end. Because of Jesus, we can proclaim with St. Paul, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)

Still, why do Christians champion the instrument of Jesus’s demise in their churches and buildings? Crucifixion was used in the Roman Empire as a tool of fear and intimidation because it was the worst punishment the empire could inflict on a person. However, the early Christians adopted the crucifix as a symbol of their faith, quite possibly as a taunt akin to, “Is this the best you can do? My Lord already defeated this!” Indeed, the crucifix gave strength and courage to the early Christians, amid nearly three centuries of persecution, by reminding them how powerful, how truly mighty the Mashiach was, for He conquered the one thing that no one else could conquer.

The crucifix reminds us that, “God so loved the world that He sent His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.” (John 3:16) In some Christian communities, a cross is used instead of a crucifix, the difference being that a cross doesn’t have Jesus’s body on it, whereas a crucifix does. The rationale behind crosses is that, since Christ is risen, there is no need to depict His dead body on the cross.

Nonetheless, Roman Catholics often use the crucifix, and for good reason. It is all too tempting to pass over Christ’s crucifixion, which is remembered on Good Friday, and skip straight to the joy of Easter, His resurrection. But then we risk forgetting the agony and pain Jesus endured “for us men and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed professes.

The crucifix, which bears Jesus’s body, reminds us that, while Jesus did suffer a gruesome death, He did so freely because He loves us. The crucifix isn’t meant to elicit disgust as my roommate suggested, but rather to remind us that Jesus freely chose to experience the most excruciating of deaths for our sake precisely because He is a God of self-sacrificial love. What could be more beautiful?

From The Voice: When Anchors Make Worthy Vessels

Originally published on March 17th, 2018, this article was taken from the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus’s column in The Georgetown Voice, entitled Gaudium et Spes. The column, written by members of the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus, appears online every other Friday.

By: Paul Sze Keat Keh

As someone who grew up in the island city-state of Singapore, from a society and community very different than Georgetown, I can attest to the claim that the Hilltop is home to an exceptionally motivated and pre-professional community. I’m grateful for this for a number of reasons, not least of which being that Georgetown pushes each of us to be the best we can be, not only for ourselves, but also for others.

Georgetown has done a phenomenal job preparing me for the real world, through professional experiences and interactions with the most incredible professors and practitioners. But on a number of occasions throughout my time here, I’ve felt compelled to ask the question: what exactly is the “real world” for which Georgetown is preparing us?

As a frequent patron of Lauinger library’s third floor study area, it is obvious to me when our community is undergoing peak periods of stress: tables, normally empty, are suddenly packed, and trash cans overflow with Corp coffee cups. It is ironic that the times when we are pushed the hardest by Georgetown to become our best selves, are precisely when we most resemble each other—our bloodshot eyes peering into books and screens. We are pushed to be exceptional, just like everybody else.

In his book The Road to Character, David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, argues that modern society—exemplified well by those late-night study sessions—has caused us to bifurcate our understandings of character and virtue. Today’s unprecedented pressure to perform and rush to conform have led us, Brooks contends, to conceive of virtue in two ways: resume virtues and eulogy virtues.

Resume virtues are the experiences we cultivate for the sake of our resumes, careers, bosses, and sometimes even our friends and family. They are things we can put a label on, like fancy internships, our GPAs, that fellowship we managed to place into, or, in a social context, things like which parties we were invited to, how many friends we have, even how much alcohol we can consume. The list goes on.

Eulogy virtues, on the other hand, are our values and aspects of our character—in other words, what people will talk about at our funerals. These include our care for the less fortunate, our authenticity, and our compassion. Eulogy virtues are far more difficult to label, and more importantly, they cannot be proven just by the activities listed on our resume. Put simply, they are the qualities for which you wish to be remembered.

Brooks laments that in our rush to fulfill resume virtues, we often neglect the more important eulogy virtues. For Brooks, true character doesn’t mean disregarding resume virtues altogether, but rather allowing them to spring from the dedication to eulogy virtues. This requires us to ask ourselves: which of these do we really desire?

Few friends I know can describe what they think their attitudes on life will be beyond the next five years. I can sympathize. As college students, sometimes a midterm or project—to say nothing of an internship or major—feels like it will determine in one fell swoop what opportunities we’ll have for the rest of our lives. Of course this isn’t really true, but it’s all too easy to get caught up in the immediate future.

But the race of life extends beyond the next five years after college. If we’re content to let the winds and waves chart our course without pausing to rest and think where we are going—or, more importantly, why we’re going where we’re going—then we’ll inevitably end up in places we won’t want to be.

If Georgetown is a place that is meant to prepare us for life after college, in the wider world beyond 37th and O, then it behooves us to consider what we’ll be bringing with us. Our eulogy virtues are the anchors that keep us grounded, and allow us to chart an enduring course amidst the ephemeral societal pressures that change with every stage of life.

Most seagoing vessels carry anchors, and while they come in varying shapes, sizes and weights, no vessel can be considered seaworthy without them. Vessels need them for stability in ever-changing tides and winds, and for protection against grounding on sand and rock.

Similarly, it is our deeper virtues and our true desires that dictate our ability to remain stable, to rest and consider our next course amidst the waves and winds of life. For some of us, faith is our anchor, and reminds us of what is right and what is to come. For others, being cognisant of our personal philosophies, and letting these be at the fore of every major decision, are concrete ways of staying grounded and making sure that at the end of the day, we can be proud that we stood for something we treasure. For while we may follow the winds to get to where we want to be, these anchors prevent us from becoming overly fixated on the means, and more importantly remembering the ends which our hearts desire.

The Georgetown community is my community, and I hope that it will grow to be one that prepares us all for a life that is ultimately fulfilling, for ourselves and those we love.

From The Voice: Experiencing Community

Georgetown University Patrick Ewing, 1985 Big East Tournament Final
College Basketball: Big East Tournament: Georgetown Patrick Ewing (33) victorious with head coach John Thompson after winning championship game vs St. John’s. New York, NY 3/9/1985 CREDIT: Carl Skalak (Photo by Carl Skalak /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (Set Number: X31194 TK3 )

Originally published on March 2nd, 2018, this article was taken from the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus’s column in The Georgetown Voice, entitled Gaudium et Spes. The column, written by members of the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus, appears online every other Friday.

By: Hunter Estes

Pope Francis once said, “No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.”

We enter Georgetown as individuals, new students seeking community. For many of us, the first few months can feel pretty isolated. But as we progress through our time here, we strive to build the kind of relationships that we can carry with us for the rest of our lives. That’s not always easy at Georgetown.

To be sure, there are countless ways to get involved on campus with our fellow Hoyas. Unfortunately, however, these communities are far too often inward looking. They may foster enduring relationships for their members, but they do little to interact with or improve the larger Georgetown community.

For better or for worse, clubs dominate Georgetown’s social scene. Their topics are perhaps too diverse to speak about collectively, but I think it’s fair to say that, for many clubs, the relationships that they help to form among Hoyas, often come at a cost. Many of the social clubs are highly exclusive, and cut themselves off from the broader campus community, whether intentionally or not.

We see this on a macro-scale in the relationships between the four colleges, as well. It’s only natural that students from the NHS, for example, will have more opportunities to interact with each other than with students from the SFS. And of course there’s nothing wrong with that. However, there are far too few occasions for these communities to intersect.

It often feels like a misnomer to refer to the “Georgetown community.” In reality, that means many small and divided communities, not a cohesive whole. But it wasn’t always this way.

Georgetown’s sense of community used to be built around its basketball team. But with all the fourth-quarter losses these days, the team just doesn’t have the same unifying power anymore. At the Capital One Arena, games are massively under-attended, while back on campus, Georgetown basketball is hardly ever mentioned without disappointment or disapproval.

With what does that leave us? What are the common experiences that we share as Hoyas? NSO? Problem of God? Georgetown Day? NSO is quickly lost in people’s memories, each Problem of God class is taught in a radically different manner, and Georgetown Day may once have been a day when faculty, staff, and students came together to celebrate Georgetown’s values, but unfortunately, as I believe many students would agree, it has strayed from its foundational roots.

For the Catholic Church, community is essential. Pope Francis reminds us that our faith journey is not one we walk alone, but rather, one in which we walk hand in hand with others. Just as “no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual,” no one should graduate alone from Georgetown.

The Church, along with Aristotle, affirms that the human person is a social animal. Quite simply, we are not who we are without each other. We need each other, not only in times of crisis or distress, but at all times, so that we can understand ourselves and fulfill our vocation to love. So, as we walk along the often-difficult pilgrimage that is Georgetown, we ought to be able to walk together, arm-in-arm.

This may sound idealistic, but there are concrete steps the university can take to start restoring the sense of community that Georgetown had not all that long ago. It starts with shared experiences. When we leave here, we should to be able to refer to positive experiences that all of us went through together.

We need more days that celebrate the values of our community, more days that offer opportunities for campus-wide service, and more speakers that have something to say for the whole Georgetown community.

Even though it was my first month here, I vividly remember the day of community service that Georgetown hosted for freshmen. Hundreds of freshmen from all corners of campus came together to serve the D.C. community. I met a number of people that day who have remained some of my best friends. I initially assumed these types of events happened often, but although I remember it fondly, it was, unfortunately, only a one-time experience.

There’s no reason this type of event can’t happen more often. Georgetown has a wealth of resources, the most important being a large group of students interested in serving their community. We need to better employ the power of our student body in service to the District. What better way to build a sense of community on-campus than by uniting in service to help communities off-campus?

At most masses that I have been to back home, the priest will typically begin the celebration by asking that the community look around, greet those they know, and introduce themselves to those they don’t. In my mind, this is the essence of community.

Much like mass, the Georgetown experience is built on hundreds of years of rich tradition. We need more communal experiences that build on that tradition, and that give us the opportunity to take a breath of fresh air, and look around to introduce ourselves to the fellow Hoyas we don’t know.

We’re in this experience together, and we ought to feel like it.

From The Voice: Joy And Hope In Gaudium Et Spes

Originally published on February 2nd 2018, this article was taken from the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus’s column in The Georgetown Voice, entitled Gaudium et Spes. The column, written by members of the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus, appears online every other Friday.

By Jack Segelstein and Max Wolfgang Rosner

October 1962 was a busy month.

On the 6th, the Sino-Indian War broke out, which would claim over 10,000 casualties in the span of a month. On the 9th, Uganda gained independence from the United Kingdom, and, two weeks later, admission to the United Nations. And from the 16th to the 28th, the Cuban Missile Crisis terrified the world with the prospect of nuclear armageddon.

And on October 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, what some observers call the largest meeting in recorded human history. This assembly, often dubbed Vatican II, is the most recent of the Church’s 21 ecumenical councils, during which leaders of the Catholic Church assemble to develop and promulgate its teachings.

Even when considered in the context of the Church’s 2,000-year history, Vatican II was exceptionally important for a number of reasons. Unlike its predecessors, it was the first ecumenical council to address all of humanity, not just the Catholic faithful. Moreover, Vatican II was uniquely conscious of its historical moment, and sought to address the social, political, and spiritual needs of contemporary society.

This is seen clearly in the document entitled Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

Gaudium et spes articulates a relationship of reciprocity between the Church and the modern world, in which each offers the other some definite service. Thus, the two are “bound up” and exist in a relationship of “solidarity.” First, in terms of what the world offers the Church, Gaudium et spes claims that even those not directly involved in the work of the Church bolster its ministry. “[W]hoever promotes the human community at the family level, culturally, in its economic, social and political dimensions… is contributing greatly to the Church…”

In the preface to Gaudium et spes, we begin to see how the Church conceives of its service to the world: “Human society deserves to be renewed,” the Church claims. This may strike us as odd—what needs to be renewed? After all, in the past 50 years, extreme global poverty has declined considerably, countless diseases have been cured, more communities have formed across greater distances than ever before, and most of the world’s population no longer feels compelled to rehearse nuclear drills.

Of course, the world has witnessed a number of calamities since the ’60s, too. Of those, the Church is particularly concerned with what we’ll call a crisis of meaning. “Man painstakingly searches for a better world, without a corresponding spiritual advancement,” reads Gaudium et spes. The Church believes that this existential crisis transcends the material, the political, the shortsighted. Our material freedom has not necessarily yielded a spiritual freedom.

Gaudium et spes translates to “joy and hope.” Ultimately, this has been the promise of the Church since Christ and remains its promise today. Even though the promise remains the same, the Church speaks uniquely to and for all of us, here and now, as Vatican II makes clear.

Let’s take a look at three ideas that find particular emphasis in the modern world and at Georgetown: dignity, rights, and social justice. What does the Church have to say to us about each of these today, and what do they have to do with joy and hope?

The Church holds that every human person is endowed by God with an inherent dignity, not unlike the dignity of God Himself. Because we are made in His image, we are accorded inestimable value and certain inalienable rights.

With our dignity and our rights come the responsibility to promote the dignity and rights of our neighbors. Thus, the Catholic vision couples our individual rights with our responsibility to others. In this way, rights—and, more broadly, justice—cannot be understood outside the context of community.

This may sound alien compared to the way we typically talk about rights. For us, rights are competing. “You have no right to be on my property!”—I have the right to free speech!” As a result, rights have become politicized, even weaponized. We are led to believe that our dignity is bestowed on us by political victories instead of by God. This situation obscures and cheapens our dignity.

In Gaudium et spes, Church leaders reject this individualized conception of rights. Throughout Vatican II (and even before the Council), the Church promoted myriad rights: life, religious freedom, unionization, a living wage, and so on. Gaudium et spes adds freedom to the list—freedom to pursue “the service of the human community.”

At Georgetown, this is what is meant when we are called to be men and women for others, a phrase coined by Pedro Arrupe, S.J., the Jesuit Superior General elected in the midst of Vatican II. Social justice, the fruit of this Georgetown value, illuminates our dignity and brings our rights to fulfillment. Service works both ways. In serving others, we not only enhance their freedom; we enhance our own as well.

The Church is often thought of as an institution whose eyes are set above this world, promoting a theology of heavenly anticipation and ascetic forbearance. Even at Georgetown, many assume the Catholic faith discounts the joy, hope and suffering of this world, because it pales in comparison to what is to come in the next life. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the Church focuses relentlessly on renewing this world, and professing the birth of a new humanism. This renewal must be “founded on truth, built on justice and animated by love.”

Justice is attainable, but not without hope, joy, and love.

In this column, we will explore why these ideas matter to our world and to our university. We invite you to join us.

 

From The Hoya: Building a Better City

Originally published on 7th April 2017, this article was taken from the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus’s rotating column in The Hoya, entitled The Round Table. The column, written by members of the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus, is published every other Friday.

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Image Credits: Paul Luke Keh

By: Hunter Estes

Washington, D.C., has been my home for more than just my time at Georgetown. I moved here when I was 12, after my dad was transferred to the Pentagon, and I have loved this city ever since. Having lived here for a few more years than most, I feel that I have a more complete view of D.C., one that includes much beauty, but also much struggle.

When I first moved to the nation’s capital, I was awestruck by the monuments and the statues and reveled in the symbols of liberty, freedom and tradition that stood throughout the city. Unfortunately, I think the magic of this city can often cover up some of its deeper faults.

I have come to see the deeply entrenched poverty that consumes one in five D.C. residents. I saw one of the fastest-growing homeless populations in the United States, with a 34.1 percent growth in the past six years. I saw monuments rising into the sky, but at the same time saw high school graduation rates remain as low as 42 percent. I witnessed the enduring legacies of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence, but also noticed rising crime rates becoming legacies of their own.

At Georgetown, we often talk about the wonderful ways we can interact and engage with the city. We hike through the District with friends in an attempt to “break the bubble,” on a constant search for new, hip places and events to try, rooms to escape and art galleries to appreciate. The fact is that D.C. has plenty to offer, and could easily keep somebody excited for four years, especially with school to occupy most of the time.

Yet, our city, in many ways, is splitting apart. In some places, new businesses flourish and real estate prices are booming. In others, infrastructure is crumbling, and schools are failing. We, at Georgetown, have the opportunity to either isolate ourselves or become an integral part of the rebuilding of D.C. As members of this community, we have a duty to invest more than what we get out of the District. We are called on to be a part of the solution.

The first step to helping the city is active reflection. Only then can we truly start to both appreciate the greatness and recognize the failings of our city. If Georgetown is to play a role in the revitalization of Washington D.C., then we should do so in a uniquely Georgetown way: a uniquely Jesuit, uniquely Catholic way. Jesuits take part in the daily Examen, in which they think back through their day and look on how they succeeded and how they failed. Reflection is rooted in our history, and I believe we should begin this process by reflecting on where we have succeeded and failed as a school.
Many of our failures stem from lack of awareness, and the only way we can help is by being informed. We can change this in small ways, through town halls and forums, bringing in speakers to talk about local issues. So often, we focus our attention on national and international affairs, but if we want to change the world, the easiest place to start is in our own backyard. People are left without homes just outside the front gates, and too often even Georgetown food banks are short on both food and volunteers.

But we have also succeeded in many ways. I believe we need to build upon the success of groups that engage with the city more tangibly. By tutoring children and volunteering in food shelters, we can help make immediate change.

How much has been accomplished if, at the end of four years, all that we have gained is a series of letter grades from classes? There is so much more to our education on the Hilltop. We are called to a higher sense of service, to not only take from this city, but to give. By increasing our school’s integration with the community we can have an immense effect on D.C.’s future. We can help this city change, and we are called to as Hoyas.

 

The Truth about the Ashes

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Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

 By: Board of the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus

This Wednesday, March 1, a curious sight will return to Georgetown’s campus as many, young and old, walk their daily routes with crosses of ashes marked across their foreheads.

To the outside observer, this occurrence might seem a bit odd, but to a Roman Catholic, the practice presents a different meaning, denoting that Ash Wednesday has arrived, and with it, the season of Lent leading to the Easter holiday.

Look below to find answers to important questions about Ash Wednesday presented by the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus.

Do you have to go to mass?

The first question that might arise for a Catholic on Ash Wednesday might be: “Is this a holy day of obligation?”

The answer to that question is no, however, it is recommended that one make an effort to attend a mass on this day, and receive their ashes.

On campus, traditional masses with a distribution of ashes will be held in Dahlgren Chapel at 12:10 p.m., 5:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. with an ecumenical service also featuring a distribution of ashes offered at 7:30 p.m.

Just off campus, the Holy Trinity Catholic Church will host Ash Wednesday masses at 7:00 a.m., 8:00 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.

What do the ashes mean?

In the simplest terms, the ashes distributed at the start of Lent are marks of repentance. They are an acknowledgement of the frailty, or the imperfection of all Catholics as human beings.

In recognizing the faults symbolized in the ashes, Catholics are meant to re-affirm their connection to God. Catholics then strengthen this bond throughout Lent when they fast, or alternately, make an effort to do good works for others.

Where do the ashes come from?

According to some sources, the Ash Wednesday holiday harkens back to an ancient practice of repentance seen as early as the story of Jonah and the people of the sinful city of Nineveh.

Upon hearing that God would destroy Nineveh in 40 days if they did not change their ways, the Ninevites “great and small” began fasting, wore sackcloth, and even their king “covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.”

Early Christian communities adopted the practice of outwardly marking repentance with ashes, with the ritual appearing in the Roman Missal—the book which guides priests through the rites of the mass—as early as the eighth century, or the 700s A.D.

The ancient practice has been observed into the modern day, with one parish in Galway, Ireland, this year instituting a drive-thru service for its busy and mobile population.

“It’s about meeting people where they are,” Fr. Paddy Mooney, the priest of the parish told The Irish Catholic, a local Catholic media outlet. “We’re just putting [the initiative] in front of people to help them think of Lent, as a reminder of it.”

But what is the truth about the ashes?

The truth about the ashes is that they arise from a tradition over 2,000 years old—they serve to connect Catholics to past generations of believers, even as the Catholics wearing them today seek to bring themselves closer to God.