Wear your ashes to work day

The celebrant of the Mass I went to yesterday said that if people asked us afterward if it was Ash Wednesday, we had permission to answer: “No. Why do you ask?”

It was the kind of benign joke meant to fade faster than the smudge on your forehead, but it came back to me last night while watching a local political news show on which one of the regular guests made sure to note the ashes on his forehead and declare it a true sign of what he called “RC” – “real Christianity, baby! Roman Catholicism!” The guest was Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels and by now just another more-or-less tolerated presence on the New York media and politics scene. So maybe it was only to be expected that he’d follow this by bending his bicep and proclaiming (here I paraphrase, because the clip isn’t available) that Ash Wednesday is the day “we RCs get to flex our Catholic muscle!”

Another joke, more stupid than benign, but maybe less benign than bellicose. I can imagine many viewers not recognizing it as humor, and maybe others willing to see it as an attempt at such, but also identifying in it something defensive if not hostile (never mind at odds with the gospel message of the day). Plus, he did it on TV.

Sliwa wore his ashes to work on Wednesday, like many other Catholics, as this National Catholic Register story details. Among them was another TV personality, Tony Reali of ESPN sports talk show “Around the Horn.” He’s done it for a number of years, though he notes in the story that he’s struggled “with the publicness” of it, his main worry being that non-Catholics might criticize his decision as an effort to force his faith on others.

Are there degrees of “publicness”? Is walking along the sidewalk different from sitting at your desk or running a large meeting—or going in front of the camera and into people’s living rooms? Forget about workplace policies. When and where does the silent or quiet evangelization become too noisy, the public expression of faith too pushy? Is it only at the point when someone like Sliwa comes in off the street and gets on the air?

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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