By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
There is no city where the juxtaposition of Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday has greater spiritual meaning than in New Orleans.
In a very Catholic way, Rex reigned over the city on Mardi Gras, Feb. 13, giving a nod to the 300-year-old city’s Catholic roots. Five floats in Rex, which has paraded since 1872, had Catholic themes.
Then, on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 14, thousands of Catholics and non-Catholics alike flocked to churches in the Archdiocese of New Orleans to receive ashes on their foreheads, symbolic of 40 days of self-examination in which the church urges the faithful to focus on prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
On Ash Wednesday at St. Joseph Church on Tulane Avenue, Vincentian Father Thomas Stehlik captured the significance of the first day of Lent falling on Feb. 14, St. Valentine’s Day.
“Love means sacrificing our personal wishes – dying to oneself – for the good of another,” Father Stehlik said.
Even though Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, Father Stehlik said, thousands of people around New Orleans attend Mass as a recognition of something “deeply ingrained in our tradition.”
“Lent is a time for self-restraint and emptying ourselves so that we can be more of service to God,” Father Stehlik said. “It’s letting go of things to make room for God.”
Those things aren’t necessarily food and drink, he said, but involve fasting from attitudes of always wanting to be “first in line” or controlling others.
“Lent is a beautiful invitation to love,” Father Stehlik said. “To think that God can take dust and fashion us – what can he do with our hearts and minds? My simple message for Lent is to give up, give back and give thanks.”
In highlighting the first 100 years of New Orleans’ 300-year history, Rex chose five Catholic persons or icons to depict in its parade:
1. St. Louis Cathedral, which was established in 1718, the same year the city was founded. Mass has been celebrated near the spot of the current cathedral for 300 years. Robert Cangelosi’s riveting history of the cathedral was published in the Clarion Herald’s tricentennial issue, “River of Faith: 300 Years as a New Orleans Catholic Community” – available as a flipbook at www.clarionherald.org.
2. The Ursuline Sisters, who arrived from France in 1727, nine years after the city was established. The Ursulines founded the first Catholic school for girls in the U.S. Ursuline Academy is the oldest, continuously operated Catholic school in the country. The Ursulines also offered hospitality and financial support to religious communities that came after them.
3. The Good Friday fire of 1788, which destroyed 80 percent of the city but did not damage the Old Ursuline Convent. One old “wives’ tale” is that the priests of the cathedral refused to allow the cathedral’s bells to be tolled as a fire alarm because of the silence required on Good Friday. Cangelosi rebuts that supposition in “River of Faith” (clarionherald.org).
4. Our Lady of Prompt Succor, the patroness of the city, whose intercession was invoked by outmanned American troops before their defeat of the British army in the Battle of New Orleans on Jan. 8, 1815.
5. Venerable Henriette Delille, a free woman of color who was born in 1813 and founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1842 to teach and catechize slaves at a time when doing so was prohibited by law. Venerable Delille’s cause for beatification is being reviewed by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.