Lent is a time for confronting evil, especially the evil within us. Today is Ash Wednesday. The origins of the use of ashes on Ash Wednesday is lost in the mists of Church history. The first pope to mention Ash Wednesday, although the custom was very old by his time, was Pope Urban II. At the Council of Clermont in 1095, the same Council at which the Pope issued his world altering call for the First Crusade, the Council handed down this decree (among others): 10-11. No layman shall eat meat after the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday until Easter. No cleric shall eat meat from Quinquagesima Sunday until Easter.
That the first pope to mention Ash Wednesday was the same pope who launched the First Crusade is very appropriate. Although even many Catholics may not realize this today, from first to last the Crusades were a penitential rite for the remission of sins. One of the foremost modern historian of the Crusades, Thomas Madden, notes this:
During the past two decades, computer-assisted charter studies have demolished that contrivance. Scholars have discovered that crusading knights were generally wealthy men with plenty of their own land in Europe. Nevertheless, they willingly gave up everything to undertake the holy mission. Crusading was not cheap. Even wealthy lords could easily impoverish themselves and their families by joining a Crusade. They did so not because they expected material wealth (which many of them had already) but because they hoped to store up treasure where rust and moth could not corrupt. They were keenly aware of their sinfulness and eager to undertake the hardships of the Crusade as a penitential act of charity and love. Europe is littered with thousands of medieval charters attesting to these sentiments, charters in which these men still speak to us today if we will listen. Of course, they were not opposed to capturing booty if it could be had. But the truth is that the Crusades were notoriously bad for plunder. A few people got rich, but the vast majority returned with nothing.
Pope Urban II was clear on this point in calling for the first Crusades when he reminded the chivalry of Europe of their manifold sins and called them to repentance through the Crusade:
What are we saying? Listen and learn! You, girt about with the badge of knighthood, are arrogant with great pride; you rage against your brothers and cut each other in pieces. This is not the (true) soldiery of Christ which rends asunder the sheepfold of the Redeemer. The Holy Church has reserved a soldiery for herself to help her people, but you debase her wickedly to her hurt. Let us confess the truth, whose heralds we ought to be; truly, you are not holding to the way which leads to life. You, the oppressers of children, plunderers of widows; you, guilty of homicide, of sacrilege, robbers of another’s rights; you who await the pay of thieves for the shedding of Christian blood — as vultures smell fetid corpses, so do you sense battles from afar and rush to them eagerly. Verily, this is the worst way, for it is utterly removed from God! if, forsooth, you wish to be mindful of your souls, either lay down the girdle of such knighthood, or advance boldly, as knights of Christ, and rush as quickly as you can to the defence of the Eastern Church. For she it is from whom the joys of your whole salvation have come forth, who poured into your mouths the milk of divine wisdom, who set before you the holy teachings of the Gospels. We say this, brethren, that you may restrain your murderous hands from the destruction of your brothers, and in behalf of your relatives in the faith oppose yourselves to the Gentiles. Under Jesus Christ, our Leader, may you struggle for your Jerusalem, in Christian battleline, most invincible line, even more successfully than did the sons of Jacob of old – struggle, that you may assail and drive out the Turks, more execrable than the Jebusites, who are in this land, and may you deem it a beautiful thing to die for Christ in that city in which He died for us. But if it befall you to die this side of it, be sure that to have died on the way is of equal value, if Christ shall find you in His army. God pays with the same shilling, whether at the first or eleventh hour.
The crowds hearing the Pope that day cried out: Deus lo volt! ( God wills it), a cry that would soon ring throughout Europe and down through the centuries. Much crime and folly were mixed in with the Crusades, as is the case with most massive human endeavors, but also an imperishable desire to do great things in the service of God.
On Ash Wednesday I have always taken to heart the formula: “Remember Man thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” It reminds me powerfully of the fleeting nature of our mortal life, and how short our time is to amend our lives and to do good in this world. As we root out evil within us during this Lent, let us also remember the pope who first mentioned Ash Wednesday, and his immortal call for all Catholics to battle evil in the world around them. As Christ confronted Satan in the first Lent, may we also have the courage to confront the evil of our times, fearlessly and unceasingly. God wills it!