The Vatican issued new guidelines for the distribution of ashes during the pandemic — you can read about them here — and now different corners of the United States are getting ready to put them into practice.
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 how 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.
Father Tom Kunz, associate general secretary and vicar for canonical services in the Pittsburgh Diocese, said the different approach with ashes “will help the priest or deacon to avoid having direct contact with a large amount of people.” He also said this method is common in other countries.
“Even in a pandemic, Lent is a season of grace and an important moment in the church’s penitential practice,” he told The Pittsburgh Catholic, online diocesan news site.
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.
The Diocese of St. Petersburg, Florida, in its online guidelines for parishes during Lent, said if parishes “choose to distribute ashes during the current health crisis” the ashes cannot be self-imposed but must be given by a minister wearing a face mask.
It gave parishes a few options, including the sprinkling of ashes on the head. It also said ashes could be imposed individually with a moistened swab or cotton ball “out of an abundance of caution”; or ministers could place ashes on foreheads with their thumbs as usual, making sure to sanitize after every two or three people.
The description on the diocesan website also stressed the “reception of ashes is not mandatory nor required.” It also said parishioners should know “their own internal disposition and intention to repent and start over” is the key to Ash Wednesday and that ashes are “an external sign of that internal reality. They may enter into Lent with a repentant heart even if they decide that receiving ashes is not the right thing for them this year.”
We’re doing sprinkling in my diocese; I’ve heard of other places where priests and deacons will be trying to apply ashes with swabs or Q-tips, which seems to me time-consuming and difficult, especially if you have a large crowd.
But the pandemic may keep people away from churches this year. We’ll see.
Below is the video from the Diocese of Fort Worth, explaining how they’re going to do it.