Bishop John Barres marked his first Ash Wednesday as head of the Diocese of Rockville Centre with a whirlwind of services, visiting a Catholic high school, a Catholic hospital and Hofstra University, and emphasizing to students and adults alike the importance of Lent as a time of reflection and repentance.
He bookended his day, morning and evening, with Masses for students. At St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School in West Islip and later at Hofstra, he posed questions to young people about their use of technology and encouraged them to think about its effect on their personal connections.
“Is there such a thing as iPhone gluttony?” Barres asked about 200 Hofstra students, staff members and employees at an evening Mass. “Do you put your iPhone before that human, face-to-face conversation?”
His actions came on a day when hundreds of thousands of Christians — Catholics and Protestants — flocked to churches across Long Island. At many services, the faithful received ashes on their foreheads in the shape of a cross, symbolizing the dust from which they believe God created man and woman.
The ashes also are a symbol of penance on the day that starts the Lenten season of fasting, prayer, reflection and preparation before observance of Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified, and Easter Sunday, marking his resurrection. This year, Good Friday is April 14 and Easter Sunday is April 16.
The bishop, at St. John the Baptist High School, called Ash Wednesday and Lent a time for deep reflection about what is important in life.
“Repentance is the road to happiness,” said Barres, who was installed as the diocese’s spiritual leader on Jan. 31, as he stood among a sea of students in the school auditorium. “It’s the road to opening up to God’s love.”
During Mass, he called on them to make sacrifices during Lent, suggesting that they set aside their iPhones at the dinner table.
“We’re losing something in terms of really talking to our families,” Barres said. “I want you to think about maybe fasting from our moments of fragmentation, distraction, when we should be having a great conversation.”
The high school’s students and administrators were thrilled to have the bishop visit.
“I feel really blessed to be here,” said Stephanie Hahn, 17, a senior from Bay Shore. “I think he’s going to do great things for us.”
She said Ash Wednesday and Lent are “a time for sacrifice, a time for repenting, for giving up something like Jesus did.”
Principal Nan Doherty said Barres “has a wonderful presence.”
“It’s a special day for everyone, and it’s a great opportunity for the kids to meet this person they’ve seen in the paper and we’ve talked to them about,” she said, referring to recent coverage of Barres becoming the fifth bishop of the Rockville Centre diocese — the nation’s eighth-largest.
“He is not stoppable in the sense that he wants to meet everyone,” Doherty said.
After the service, Barres toured the school, walking through halls packed with students in between classes and visiting the library, the chapel and a French class.
After his time there, he walked across the street to Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center, where he celebrated Mass in the chapel. Before the service, he greeted people in the pews and then roamed the lobby, the gift shop, the coffee shop and the switchboard room.
“It was unbelievable,” said Doreen Galluci, a switchboard operator for 15 years, who joked that not even her bosses visit the small room. “I thought he was just going to come and wave. But when he walked in here — wow!”
Later, Barres traveled to Hempstead to lead a 5 p.m. service at Hofstra University — his first such event at a university or college on Long Island since becoming bishop.
“It was so awesome having the bishop here, especially on a secular campus,” said Julia Barry, 19, a sophomore from East Meadow and a marketing major. “It’s really nice to see him bring Christ’s light onto our campus and show the students the church is still alive.”
Though Ash Wednesday is not a holy day obligation for Catholics, it draws droves of the faithful to church. Nearly half of Catholics — about 45 percent — typically receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
The Rev. Diane Pina, executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches, said a growing number of Protestants on the Island and across the country are observing Ash Wednesday.
“It’s becoming something folks are embracing,” she said.
The Rev. William Mahoney, of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Deer Park, called Ash Wednesday and Lent “a time of preparation for what lies ahead, not only for Easter but for eternal life.”
Mahoney, recalling some of his own Lenten resolutions, held out optimism as a prospect, with a pledge to be “more positive in looking at other people and how they live their lives. Not to prejudge people, but meet them where they are at.”