A Different Ash Wednesday this year

Ash Wednesday on February 17, 2021 will look a tad different in churches around the world this year. It will be no different in churches across the Philippines.

Where permitted by the prevailing quarantine status of the locality, the massive crowds will be curtailed to pandemic-restricted size limits with members of the congregation spread out in socially distanced seating.

When the prevailing community quarantine won’t even allow that, Catholics will be watching the Mass livestreamed in their residences, and would not be able to receive ashes.

Archbishop Jose Cabantan bless with Holy water the priests of the Cagayan de Oro Archdiocese during his installation Cagayan de Oro on Friday, August 28, 2020. Photo by Froilan Gallardo

Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten season, or 40 days of prayer, fasting and alms giving, is observed by Catholics and some Protestant denominations around the world.

The ashes used during the Ash Wednesday observance are collected from the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration.

In some churches, the ashes are mixed with the Oil of the Catechumens, one of the sacred oils used to anoint those about to be baptized, although some churches use ordinary oil.

The Vatican said priests can take special precautions when distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17, by sprinkling ashes on people’s heads rather than people’s foreheads

Last year’s Ash Wednesday Masses Feb. 26 were celebrated just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic became full-blown, 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.

Pope Francis distributes ashes on Ash Wednesday 2020. (Photo Vaticannews)

The Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments asked priests to take special anti-COVID-19 precautions this year when distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17, including sprinkling ashes on the top of people’s heads rather than using them to make a cross on people’s foreheads.

The congregation’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 he 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 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 sprinkled on the top of their head or rubbed onto their forehead.

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. It also has historical roots linking back to the penitent aspect of ashes.

Given the spread of the coronavirus, the practice has the advantage of not requiring the priest to touch and speak to multiple people. The Latin, Italian, French, German, Spanish and Portuguese versions of the note also specify that the mask should cover the priests’ “nose and mouth.”

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

“We too follow the same protocols here in the archdiocese,” said Cagayan de Oro Archbishop Jose A. Cabantan, D.D., in an email to the Metro Cagayan de Oro Times. “During our presbyterium meeting we too include the traditional way of imposing the ashes but using a cotton ball for each person.”

“But generally we follow the pouring of ash on the head. We too encourage families to avail of the home liturgy if they cannot join in the church. They can also participate thru an online Mass and do the imposition of blessed ashes themselves,” he added.

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 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.

The change for many parishes this year — where the words used prior to the distribution of ashes are just said once before the entire congregation — might also be hard for many people who would prefer to have that message told to them individually.

But the practice of addressing the communal body, not just individuals, also could be important this year when many are in this very different experience together.

Many parishes have clarified that the “reception of ashes is not mandatory nor required, and 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.”

Doing something different is hard for people especially when so many are already stressed out and tired. But such are the circumstances we are in, that amid the pandemic, church officials are looking at ways to prevent speaking in close proximity to others or being in direct contact with them.

The choice of words prior to the imposition of ashes also is key this year because the reminder of one’s mortality “to dust you shall return” is almost unavoidable with the daily increase of deaths from COVID-19 but the call to “repent and believe in the Gospel” leaves the congregation with something they have to do.

Online Ash Wednesday resource materials provided by the Catholic Health Association for Catholic hospital and health care workers put the potential changes to Ash Wednesday in perspective.

“While Lent itself remains the same, with the global pandemic, some of our activities will have to be nuanced to fit the needs of this time — particularly Ash Wednesday,” said the group.

“As we come together by staying apart, we know our celebration of Ash Wednesday this year will look very different. For many of us, this marks a full year of managing and planning around the coronavirus.”

Catholic bishops in the Philippines recently released new guidelines for celebrating Ash Wednesday basically advising priests to strictly observe the guidelines issued by the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments

Parishes can also use dried leaves of plants and trees instead of old palm leaves to make ashes. Traditionally, ashes are made from old palm leaves blessed on past Palm Sundays.

These protocols will prevent the spread of coronavirus without sacrificing the essence of Lenten liturgy, according to the guidelines.

The time of the pandemic has affected all aspects of our life and even our liturgical celebrations. Since the start of the pandemic, we have issued directives and guidelines to help all our pastors and Christian communities in the proper celebration of the liturgy,” said the bishops.

“We continue to pray for the healing of many and the end of the pandemic. We thank God for the gift of the vaccines. We pray for the wisdom and compassion for our government leaders in the just and equitable distribution of the vaccines.”

While churchgoers welcomed the guidelines and hoped they would minimize the transmission of the virus, others said they preferred to receive the mark the traditional way, on the forehead.

In Boac Diocese, Bishop Marcelino Antonio Maralit Jr. said they will observe Ash Wednesday the traditional way.

“Our church is very traditional,” he said, adding that the island diocese has reported no coronavirus cases yet. “I don’t think we need to panic in that sense that is why we are keeping the traditional practice of marking the forehead with blessed ashes.” 

Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo, the apostolic administrator of Manila, urged people to “go to the core meaning of our rites rather than be confused by changed external practices.”

Fr. Jerome Secillano, execu­tive secretary of the public affairs office of the bishops’ conference, also said that “confusion and fear “should not stand in the way of a meaningful celebration.

“Ash Wednesday is the day that reminds us of our mortality,” he said. “With Jesus let us conquer our fears and strengthen our faith.” 

In another departure from tradition, the Cebu Archdiocese will allow churchgoers to distribute ashes among family members at home to mark the beginning of Lent on Feb. 17.

The archdiocese released a prayer guide on Feb. 10 for the celebration of Ash Wednesday at home for those unable to go to church due to coronavirus restrictions.

Children and elderly people are disqualified by government protocols to attend large gatherings such as those in churches.

“Those who cannot come to church on this day can join the celebration of the Mass of Ash Wednesday on a live TV broadcast or livestreaming,” the archdiocese said.

The head of the family would lead the entire family in prayer according to the guidelines.

After the prayers, he should sprinkle ash on the head of each family member to avoid contact with them.

“They can then receive ashes from family members who were able to go to church for the celebration,” the guidelines said.

Families would conclude the celebration with a prayer and the sign of the cross.

Cebu Archdiocese also reminded Catholics that Ash Wednesday was a day of fasting and abstinence like all Fridays during Lent.

“Ash Wednesday is a day of universal fast and abstinence in the Catholic Church. Fasting is required from ages 18-60, and abstinence is from age 14,” the diocese added.

Cebu Archbishop Jose D. Palma said Lenten season is the time for  Catholics to deepen their relationship with Jesus.

“It is Jesus who calls us to be his followers so that people may know that we have a loving and caring God,” Archbishop Palma said in a recent homily. (with reports from ucanews.com)

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