By Carol Zimmermann, Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON — Many people looking at their February calendars are doing a double-take with Ash Wednesday falling on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day.
The two days, steeped in tradition, don’t have too much in common beyond their religious roots. Valentine’s Day, named after St. Valentine, a third-century martyr, is all about romance with its emphasis on cards, candy, flowers and nice dinners, where Ash Wednesday takes a more somber tone as the start of 40 days of prayer, fasting and almsgiving of Lent.
Ash Wednesday also is one of two days, along with Good Friday, that are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for Catholic adults — meaning no eating meat and eating only one full meal and two smaller meals. In other words, not a day for consuming candy hearts, chocolate cakes or fancy steak dinners.
And for those who wonder if Catholic bishops might grant a dispensation from the day’s fasting requirements, as they sometimes have with the no meat rule when St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday in Lent, they should probably think again.
Bishop Robert J. Baker of Birmingham, Alabama, told Catholics in his diocese in a Jan. 29 statement that “some have wondered whether a dispensation for the standard laws of fast and abstinence would be granted” Feb. 14.
“A dispensation will not be given,” he wrote, stressing that this decision was “out of respect for the importance of Ash Wednesday in the lives of so many.”
He suggested Catholics celebrate Valentine’s Day on another “non-penitential day,” maybe even Feb. 13 — which is Mardi Gras.
A Jan. 26 statement by the Archdiocese of Chicago similarly suggested celebrating Valentine’s Day on Mardi Gras.
“Catholics throughout the world recognize Ash Wednesday as the solemn beginning of a period of prayerful reflection and penance, as is evident by the large number of churchgoers on this day,” the statement said.
The last time Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day overlapped, in 1945, the Detroit Tigers won the World Series.
Researchers at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or CARA, based at Georgetown University, point out that the two days will overlap again in 2024 and 2029 and that in 2096, Ash Wednesday will occur on Leap Day — Feb.29 for the first time in the church’s history.