More Catholics turn out each year to receive the ashes than any other holy day on the calendar. When Ash Wednesday arrives this year on Feb. 17 parishes will look for creative ways to distribute the ashes while maintaining COVID-19-related safe distancing.
The nature of Ash Wednesday – huge crowds, the direct touching of thousands of foreheads by church ministers – will make it a challenge. But in a Jan. 29 memo, the Diocese offered several alternatives for distribution of the ashes.
Clergy and others distributing the ashes at parishes are prohibited from the usual method of applying the ashes to the recipient’s forehead in the sign of the cross. Instead, they are advised to sprinkle a small amount of the ashes on the crown of the recipient’s head. Another alternative offered by the Diocese is for the minister to sprinkle a small amount of ashes into the palm of the recipient’s hand, avoiding direct touch, and then the recipient would make the sign of the cross on their own forehead with the ashes. A third option offered is for the recipient to dip their own cotton ball or swab into the container of ashes and, with it, make the sign of the cross on their forehead.
Beyond those on-site distribution options parishes are also being encouraged to prepare take home packages for homebound parishioners and for families who wish to observe Ash Wednesday through a private prayers service and at home distribution.
Parishes typically have multiple Masses and prayer services on Ash Wednesday to accommodate the thousands who wish to receive the ashes. This year, according to the Diocesan guidelines, Masses must be held outdoors with a maximum of 100 attendees. A hybrid approach, much like some parishes used for Thanksgiving and Christmas, is also offered. In that scenario, parishes would offer a livestreamed Mass or prayer service online and then parishioners would come after watching it to the church to receive the ashes and communion. The ashes can be distributed to parishioners inside the church under this scenario but only 10 people are allowed inside at any one time, and each can only be inside the church for a maximum of 15 minutes.
Six-foot social distancing and the wearing of face coverings by both recipients and ministers distributing the ashes and communion must be observed at all times.