Global modification to Ash Wednesday ceremonies

Ash Wednesday impacted by Covid-19

Churches around the world have modified Ash Wednesday ceremonies due to the impact of Covid-19.

The holy day of prayer and fasting is one of the highest contact observances on the liturgical calendar. It takes place on 17 February this year.

Many churches mark the beginning of the penitential season of Lent with clergy marking the sign of the cross on congregants’ foreheads with ashes. The ashes are remnants from the burning of palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations.

The practice presents a problem when health experts fighting COVID-19 have advised people to avoid touching their faces or coming close to others.

Ahead of the beginning of Lent, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments published a note detailing how Catholic priests are to distribute ashes. It says:

  • The priest blesses the ashes and sprinkles them with holy water in silence.
  • He then addresses those present, reciting once the formula found in the Roman Missal. He says “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.
  • The priest then “cleanses his hands and puts on a face mask. He will distribute ashes to those who come to him. Or, if appropriate, he goes to those who are standing in their places.”
  • He then sprinkles the ashes on each person’s head “without saying anything.”

The Pope’s Ash Wednesday plans have also been impacted.

Pope Francis will celebrate Ash Wednesday Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. This is in place of making the traditional walk from the Church of St. Anselm to the Basilica of Santa Sabina on Rome’s Aventine Hill.

Because of ongoing concerns about drawing a crowd and the potential that could have for spreading the coronavirus, the Mass and distribution of ashes will take place with a congregation of about 100 people at the Altar of the Chair.

In the UK, the Church in England and Wales is preparing to celebrate Ash Wednesday under unprecedented circumstances. Catholics are being urged to stay at home and bless one another with the sign of the cross to mark the beginning of Lent.

Speaking to churchgoers in London, where the South African variant of the coronavirus has been detected in several boroughs, Cardinal Vincent Nichols said: “My suggestion is this: celebrate Ash Wednesday at home, with your family, in the household or ‘support bubble’ of which you are a part.”

The Rev. Stacy Gahlman-Schroeder of Norway Grove Memorial Lutheran Church in DeForest, Wisconsin, plans to stand in the church parking lot throughout the day, dipping disposable Q-tips into the ashes, rather than her finger, or offering a blessing, if it’s preferred.


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