Ash Wednesday is a big day for the faithful flock, but this year marks an especially monumental and emotional high holy day for the Catholic community, as Pope Benedict XVI leads one of his last services as the Supreme Pontiff. Amid swirling rumors and lingering doubts over the reasons for his abdication, the spiritual leader has changed the location for his Ash Wednesday service to a larger church, in order to accommodate the anticipated crowd that will gather for their last moments with the aging Benedict.
Ash Wednesday shuts the festive carnival door on Mardi Gras and opens the austere wooden gates of Lent, a forty day practice in denial and self-reflection that prepares souls for Easter Sunday. This year, Benedict will celebrate Ash Wednesday mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, before the 85-year-old steps down, possibly due to a specific health problem that has emerged since his announcement of abdication. Unbeknowst to the public, the pope underwent a secret surery three months ago to replace the batteries in his pacemaker. Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi denounced the dire import of the surgery, and brushed it off as “routine replacement” and nothing more.
Ash Wednesday finds the church and Catholics abuzz, with interesting consequences. As the College of Cardinals scrambles to pick the next successor, protocol questions on the status of the soon-to-be ex-pontiff abound. What will Benedict’s status be after his official resignation? Will he continue to be called His Holiness? Meanwhile, Catholics seem to be so busy that certain priests are offering a drive-through option on Ash Wednesday. Yes, the faithful can literally drive up to get their ashes at a window before speeding off to complete the daily grind. How’s that for keeping up with the times?