Ash Wednesday protocols amid COVID-19

February 10, 2021

With Lent set to start on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 17), the Vatican recently modified the procedure for distributing ashes which the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston will follow, said Father Richard “Luke” Millette, Judicial Vicar of the Archdiocese’s Tribunal.

The Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments published details on how ashes will be distributed.

Instead of being marked individually with a cross of ashes on the forehead for Ash Wednesday, parishioners will face a different procedure for safety reasons amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

First, the priests will bless the ashes, sprinkling the ashes with holy water. Then the celebrant will address those present, reciting only once the formulas found in the Roman Missal: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

At that point, the protocol continues, the priest “cleanses his hands, puts on a face mask, and distributes ashes to those who come to him or, if appropriate, he goes to those who are standing in their places.”

He then takes a pinch of ashes and sprinkles the ashes on top of each person’s head.

Father Millette said nothing theologically will change with this procedural alteration and in fact, most of Europe have traditionally sprinkled ashes on top of the head rather than placing ashes on the forehead.

“When I helped to serve on Ash Wednesday at St. Peter’s in the Vatican years ago, I started to do the ashes on the foreheads when I realized people were looking at me strangely because others were only being sprinkled on top of their heads,” he said.