PROVIDENCE — The beginning of Lent this year will have a different look and feel because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead of tracing the sign of the cross with ashes on the forehead, a priest will sprinkle ashes on each person’s head without saying anything. Blessing the ashes at the altar, the priest will, one time, recite the common penitential formula found in the Roman Missal.
“Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
“This Ash Wednesday will be slightly different as the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome has adjusted the way in which we administer the imposition of ashes,” said Father Jeremy J. Rodrigues, director of the diocesan Office of Divine Worship.
Ahead of Ash Wednesday, which this year falls on Feb. 17, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments published a note detailing how priests are to distribute ashes.
The note explains that the priest, after blessing the ashes and reciting the formula, “cleanses his hands, puts on a face mask, and distributes ashes to those who come to him or, if appropriate, he goes to those who are standing in their places.”
The priest then sprinkles the ashes on each person’s head “without saying anything,” the Vatican’s note instructs.
“This is different for us in the United States as the custom has been to rub ashes in the sign of the cross on the forehead,” said Father Rodrigues, who added that the sprinkling of ashes on the top of the head is how the rite is typically performed in Europe and other countries.
“I would imagine that some parishioners will find it odd to have the ashes sprinkled on the top of their head, but this is not all that uncommon in other countries,” Father Rodrigues said.
The ashes for Ash Wednesday Mass are made from burning the blessed palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration.
As recounted in the Old Testament, ashes are an ancient symbol of penance.
“I would say that the tradition of ashes is a very ancient form of penitence,” Father Rodrigues said. “We hear, in Sacred Scripture, of the custom of sitting in sackcloth and ashes. This form of penitence would find people wearing sackcloth and having ashes sprinkled on them seated in public places as a sign of repentance.”
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the forty-day Lenten Season, which Catholics the world over observe by fasting, abstaining from meat on Fridays, praying more and giving alms. The season echoes the 40 days that Jesus Christ spent in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry. The season also reminds the faithful of the 40 years that the ancient Israelites wandered in the desert after leaving slavery in Egypt.
Bishop Robert C. Evans, the auxiliary bishop of Providence, will preside at the 12:05 p.m. Mass on Ash Wednesday in the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul in Providence. After Mass, a group of local Catholics will gather outside the cathedral for a procession to Planned Parenthood at 175 Broad St., where they will pray the rosary for a peaceful witness to life.
Lisa Cooley, the coordinator for the Office of Life and Family in the Diocese of Providence, noted that Ash Wednesday also marks the beginning of the 40 Days for Life campaign, a period in which the faithful pray, fast and engage in community outreach to bring an end to abortion.
The 40 Days for Life campaign, in which people volunteer to keep vigil and pray outside abortion clinics, ends on March 28. More information is available at 40daysforlife.com/providence.
“We always want it peaceful and prayerful. We don’t obstruct driveways or sidewalks,” said Cooley, who added that the 40 Days for Life in Rhode Island is sponsored by her office and Rhode Island Right to Life.
Meanwhile, at St. Pius X Church in Westerly, Father Michael Najim said he is looking forward to observing Lent this year together as a community of faith. He noted that about halfway through Lent in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced churches to close for several weeks.
“Last year for most of Lent, we weren’t able to be together at Mass,” said Father Najim, who added that he was considering having the imposition of ashes after the conclusion of the Ash Wednesday liturgy.
“Like a lot of other pastors, I think we are all probably thinking of how best to explain to our people the new guidelines,” Father Najim said, adding that he does not expect the church to be packed for Ash Wednesday, given the pandemic and social distancing guidelines.
In light of COVID-19 concerns, the new formula and ritual gesture for Ash Wednesday will require “a greater comprehension” on the part of the faithful as they approach for ashes, Father Rodrigues said.
“They are certainly an important sign of our Christian faith and our beginning of the season of Lent,” Father Rodrigues said. “It is an outward reminder not only of our repentance but that our lives are meant to be in service to God who created us out of nothing, this dust. We are reminded that we will return to dust after our death because our lives here on earth are temporary, but we repent because we are made to live forever with the Lord in heaven, and repentance ensures that we are living in a manner that is in accord with God’s commandments.”
Father Najim added that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, for the second consecutive year, adds a deeper layer of penance for Catholics during Lent.
“Penance can be active, where it’s something I impose on myself and undertake on my own accord,” Father Najim. “Then we can have a passive penance where there are things that are happening around us that we can’t control. And actually, that’s not a bad thing for us as Christians to embrace that.”
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