Ash Wednesday: Different look, same message

February 9, 2021

Photo by James Ramos/Herald

WASHINGTON — Ash Wednesday, as with many other things right now, will have a different look at many Catholic parishes across the United States this year.

For starters, Catholic churches that are often standing-room only on this day — drawing crowds just short of the Easter and Christmas congregations — will be at their pandemic-restricted size limits with members of the congregation spread out in socially distanced seating.

Other Catholics will be watching the livestream Mass, as they have been for much of the pandemic, and will, of course, not receive ashes.

Last year’s Ash Wednesday Masses were celebrated just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., so Church services and social media posts of people’s ashes followed the usual tradition.

It wasn’t until the third week of Lent that dioceses began lifting Sunday Mass obligations and temporarily stopping public Masses.
Most churches are open now but are limiting congregation sizes and requiring parishioners to sign up for Masses. But parish life is not the same.

And during this year’s celebration of Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17, many dioceses will be following the Vatican’s recommendation of a modified method for distributing ashes: sprinkling them on the top of people’s heads rather than using them to make a cross on people’s foreheads.

The note on the “distribution of ashes in time of pandemic” was published online in January by the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

It said priests should bless the ashes with holy water at the altar and then address the entire congregation with the words in the Roman Missal that are used when marking individual’s foreheads with ashes: Either “Repent and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

The sprinkling of ashes on individual heads would take place without any words said to each person.

Dioceses will respond to this adaptation based on the effects of the pandemic in their respective regions, said Father Andrew Menke, executive director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.

Some dioceses have announced their plans to follow this step.

The website of the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, posted videos in English and Spanish reviewing the practice of sprinkling of ashes on people’s heads explained by Father Thu Nguyen, diocesan director of liturgy and worship.

Ashes’ symbolism comes from Old Testament descriptions of wearing sackcloth and ashes as signs of penance.

The Catholic Church incorporated this practice in the eighth century when those who committed grave sins known to the public had to do public penitence and were sprinkled with ashes. By the 12th century, the practice of penance and either sprinkling or marking of ashes became something for the whole Church at the start of Lent.