COVID-19 pandemic forces Ash Wednesday changes worldwide

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Ash Wednesday services will look different for Christian churches around the world this year due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In January, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments requested that priests take extra health and safety precautions when distributing ashes to parishioners. 

In a Jan. 12 note, the congregation wrote that priests should bless the ashes — which are made from the palm fronds used at the prior year’s Palm Sunday service — and sprinkle them with holy water before reciting the Roman Missal. 


“The priest then cleanses his hands, puts on a face mask and distributes the ashes to those who come to him or, if appropriate, he goes to those who are standing in their places,” the note from Cardinal Robert Sarah and Archbishop Arthur Roche instructs. “The priest takes the ashes and sprinkles them on the head of each one without saying anything.”

In a year without the coronavirus, the ashes would be placed on the forehead of the individual or drawn in a small cross during Mass. 

President Biden, a lifelong Catholic, annually receives ashes on his forehead.

A Catholic priest sprinkles ash on the head of a man during Ash Wednesday rituals Feb 17, 2021, at the St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in Caloocan, Metro Manila, Philippines. The parish distributed blessed ashes placed in small sachets to residents who cannot go to church so they can mark themselves and other family members at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19 virus. Ash Wednesday marks the start of lent in this largely Roman Catholic country. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

The ashes symbolize death and repentance for those who observe the day, which marks the beginning of the Lenten season which lasts 40 days in commemoration of the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, leading up to Easter Sunday. 

But, that won’t be the only change for congregants.

The Phillippines saw Catholics observe Ash Wednesday wearing mandatory masks and face shields.

In Ireland, where 78.3% of its 3.7 million citizens identify as Catholic, many places of worship offered DIY or “takeaway ashes” for at-home application, which include instructions and a prayer.

Alterations are especially apparent in the United States, where the virus has killed more than 488,900 Americans.

In-person services with limited headcounts will be the norm in places like the state of New York, which has guidelines that restrict religious gatherings to 50% capacity with proper social distancing. 


Other areas will hold services outdoors — despite the deadly Arctic chill freezing parts of the country — or offer drive-thru “fast” ashes, using the back of the hand, or curbside pickup. 

Many churches have managed to operate using a hybrid system over the past few months — both online and in-person worship.

The 12 p.m. ET Mass at the famed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City distributed ashes and the event was live streamed.

Some services will be held using the videoconferencing application Zoom, which gained popularity over the last year and has since become a staple for businesses with employees working from home and families separated by the pandemic.

Some services will be more creative. St. Thomas Church in Southington, Conn. and the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia are using Q-tips for ash application.

Washington D.C.’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Church will reportedly host an art project where people send words for a banner created with dust and as it washes away, congregants re-create it throughout the 40 days of Lent. 

Pennellville United Methodist Church in New York announced via Facebook that it would symbolically make ashes, burning confessions in a fire pit with services broadcast over the radio.


Christ Lutheran Church in Minnesota will pass out stickers with crosses on them

“The mission goes on, God’s love goes on whether it’s a pandemic or not,” Pastor Steve Rheingans told KAAL, the ABC affiliated TV station in Austin, Minnesota, on Wednesday. “And the mission that he’s called us to continues even if it’s done in different ways.”

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