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From dawn to dusk, Sydney returns to church for ashes and a new beginning

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Thousands of Catholics visited Sydney’s CBD churches on Ash Wednesday. Photo: George Al-Akiki
Thousands of Catholics visited Sydney’s CBD churches on Ash Wednesday. Photo: George Al-Akiki

Sydney’s CBD was drowsily rising from sleep at 6:30am on Wednesday, but the city’s Catholics were wide awake and at prayer, with 400 footfalls breaking the silence at St Mary’s Cathedral as parishioners approached the altar to mark the beginning of Lent.

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Workers with early starts and some elderly Catholics were the first in Sydney to receive their ashes and the call to repent and believe in the Gospel at the 6:45am Mass.

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The sun would finally start to peek through the stained glass windows as they departed the cathedral and entered the world, marked with the sign of their faith.

Across town at St Patrick’s Church Hill, the parish was already serving its second Mass by 8am, on one of the busiest days of the year.

The packed crowds made sense to Michael Tehan, who thought it was a holy day of obligation.

“Well actually, it isn’t,” his co-worker Adam Walk clarified.

Each flew in from Melbourne and Brisbane for work and wanted to receive their ashes before their morning business meeting.

A quick Google search led them to St Pat’s.

“Regardless, it’s certainly one of the most important days in our church year, and reminds every one of us of our mortality,” Michael said.

Young mothers, elderly and traffic controllers ending their morning shift took advantage of the 10:30am and 11:15am Masses.

Archbishop Anthony FIsher OP preached on the traditional Lenten theme of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Archbishop Anthony FIsher OP preached on the traditional Lenten theme of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Gregoria Tamayo, who received her ashes at 10:30am, went to praise and thank God.

The St Pat’s parishioner is used to travelling with her husband and daughter each Sunday from Alexandria to mass in The Rocks.

She was glad to be joined by over 250 people this year on Ash Wednesday.

The popularity of the day, when many Catholics return to church after a time away, spoke to Gregoria of hearts yearning for meaning in life.

“It’s the perfect way to come and start again in your journey with Christ,” she said.

Those well on time for midday Mass at the Cathedral strolled casually through Hyde Park, soaking in the sun, while others hopped frantically out of Ubers and rushed up the stairs to join over 700 tourists, workers on break, and couples.

Many would have been surprised to find Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP presiding at the low Mass and imposing ashes.

The archbishop preached on the traditional Lenten theme of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

“We are offered 40 days of prayer, fasting and giving, not for earthly gain, but to ready ourselves for that day when, from that dust from which we are made and to which we return Christ ‘will raise up in the flesh those who have died and transform our lowly body after the pattern of his own glorious body,’” he said, quoting the third Eucharistic prayer of the Mass.

The simplicity and stillness of the midday service gave massgoers a chance to reflect on their mortality.

But the dust of Lenten ashes was not the only thing filling the cathedral; love was also in the air.

Thousands of Catholics enewed their faith for many different reasons, but all left with the ashes that mark them as Christ’s disciples. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Thousands of Catholics enewed their faith for many different reasons, but all left with the ashes that mark them as Christ’s disciples. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

American tourists, husband and wife Marty and Grace, had plenty of time for God on Valentine’s Day, which fell on Ash Wednesday this year.

“The greatest love of all is of course God’s love, and so it falls on a perfect day,” Grace said.

Marty believes the overwhelming number of attendees were there to do more than just tick off a religious obligation.

“It’s about more people putting their faith in God,” he said.

Grace believes the increased number of parishioners this year is less due to people feeling they have a sense of duty to attend mass, and more about witnesses making the genuine effort to reignite their relationship with Christ.

“Christ renews you and when you realise that, as many now are, it only makes you happy,” she said.

Seventy-year-old Bernadette wished to attend midday Mass at St Pat’s but decided to wait an hour after seeing a sea of parishioners flood out of the church doors into the streets.

She was delighted to see a renewed faith in the younger demographic, after she herself had been praying for her own two children to return to Christ.

“Receiving ashes isn’t just about the individual—it’s a reminder that there’s lot of joy in praising God and in helping others, as he’s asked,” Bernadette said.

As the day drew to a close, the cathedral’s final mass at 5:30pm was packed out with workers and families.

Around 1500 parishioners took their final chance to begin Lent, but the evening crowd weren’t quite as enthusiastic as the early birds.

St Patrick’s Church Hill was already serving its second Mass by 8am, on one of the busiest days of the year. Photo: George Al-Akiki
St Patrick’s Church Hill was already serving its second Mass by 8am, on one of the busiest days of the year. Photo: George Al-Akiki

Aaron joked that his brother Jacob had to force him into it.

“But I’m certainly glad I made it,” he said.

The pair were near the city for work and upon Jacob’s insistence his brother and mum Hanya came together to attend.

“It’s days like Ash Wednesday that bring Catholics together and remind us that we’re all one living church, a church that endures,” said Jacob.

Despite it nearing nearly 7pm, the swarm of parishioners remained behind in the forecourt well after the final blessing, with clouds overhead threatening a downpour.

“I wonder whether it’s due to all the unrest in the world today,” said Hanya.

“It could be a lot of things, but I tend to think that the way the world is these days is bringing these people back to their roots.”

“Christianity is the foundation of our society and there are still plenty of people that want to come and witness this, here at the foundation of Catholicism in Australia.”

By day’s end, thousands of Catholics crossed the threshold of the city’s busiest churches and left with their cross of ashes, signifying for all the world to see that they are Christ’s disciples.

In 40 days, they will rise with their Lord—but in the meantime, their Lenten pilgrimage has begun.

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