Lent will begin with a sprinkling of ashes
FORT WORTH — To minimize any potential spread of coronavirus, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued a statement directing priests to sprinkle ashes on the heads of people on Ash Wednesday, rather than making a cross on the forehead of each person.
Sprinkling ashes on the top of people’s heads, rather than marking foreheads with ashes, is the customary practice at the Vatican and in Italy. Given the spread of the coronavirus, the practice has the advantage of not requiring the priest to touch multiple people.
Father Thu Nguyen, director of liturgy and worship for the Diocese of Fort Worth, said, “Rome came out with a way of keeping our tradition of our Lenten observance of Ash Wednesday…. It’s a tradition of Catholics. We always want to return to God and want to walk during the Lenten season with Jesus.”
Ash Wednesday, which falls on February 17 this year, begins Lent, the liturgical season of penitential preparation leading up to the celebration of Easter.
The Vatican’s note on the “distribution of ashes in time of pandemic” was published on the congregation's website Jan. 12 and directs priests to say “the prayer for blessing the ashes” and then sprinkle “the ashes with holy water, without saying anything.”
“Then [the priest] addresses all those present and only once says the formula as it appears in the Roman Missal, applying it to all in general: ‘Repent and believe in the Gospel’ or ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.’”
“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,” it said. “The priest takes the ashes and sprinkles them on the head of each one without saying anything.”
The usual practice in the U.S. would be to repeat the formula — “Repent and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” — to each person as the ashes are rubbed onto their forehead.
Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson is “concerned about both the physical and spiritual health of the people,” according to Fr. Nguyen, and he will implement this modification throughout the diocese as an additional protocol to keep congregations safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although not a holy day of obligation, Ash Wednesday typically attracts large numbers of faithful. Father Nguyen noted some parishes may choose to offer the briefer Liturgy of the Word followed by distribution of ashes instead of a Mass.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article contains reporting from Catholic News Service.