WILMINGTON, Del. — At Our Lady of Lourdes, the Rev. Steven B. Giuliano won’t be using his finger this year to make the sign of the cross on the foreheads of his congregation for Ash Wednesday.
Instead, he will be following the Vatican’s request: Sprinkle the ashes upon their heads.
The changes don’t stop there. Instead of saying, “Repent and believe in the gospel,” to each worshiper individually, he will say it once to the entire church while socially distant from the crowd instead of face-to-face. And the church won’t be celebrating Stations of the Cross in person, instead having parishioners watch online.
Churches across the U.S. will be doing things differently Wednesday as the threat of spreading COVID-19 has now claimed the church tradition in many places, albeit for a year. Some churches are getting creative, with drive-thru ashes and do-it-yourself bagged ashes.
As the country approaches the one-year anniversary of widespread shutdowns and mitigation efforts, Ash Wednesday is one of the few remaining major worldwide events to be affected by COVID-19 for the first time.
Last year on Ash Wednesday, former President Donald Trump announced then-Vice President Mike Pence would lead his administration’s response to the virus that had spawned less than 100 reported cases in the U.S. at the time.
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But sprinkling ashes on the top of people’s heads is actually the customary practice at the Vatican and in Italy, Giuliano noted in his church bulletin. While the change in the tradition may still seem abnormal for some parishioners, Giuliano won’t feel the same.
“You never see the Pope with ashes on his forehead,” he said. “They are always placed atop his head.”
Across the country, other churches are adding more distance than just a sprinkle.
Some churches, such as St. Hedwig Roman Catholic Church in Wilmington, Delaware, have asked parishioners to put their heads down when they approach the priest to make the sprinkling easier.
At Wayside Presbyterian Church in Erie, Pennsylvania, drive-thru ashes will be offered for the first time. The Rev. Nathan Royster, associate pastor, said people can either hold out an arm to have ashes placed on the back of the hand or have ashes put on the forehead.
The church’s senior pastor and youth volunteers will apply the ashes and will use hand sanitizer between cars. Everyone will be masked, including those in the car getting ashes.
Royster said the pandemic has pushed churches to explore “how to live out their life and mission in creative ways.”
Other churches are putting ashes in bags for congregants to use themselves.
At St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, also in Erie, the Rev. Sami Pfalzgraf will still put ashes on people’s foreheads, but she also will place individual portions of ashes in plastic bags for people to take and place on themselves or one another if they have concerns about the coronavirus.
“It actually becomes … a spiritual moment where families can put ashes on each other,” she said.
Meanwhile, other churches are going fully remote.
The Rev. Kim Litsey said there are no in-person services at Grace Episcopal or at St. James Episcopal in Connecticut, as in-person services have been canceled since the end of the summer when COVID-19 case numbers began rising again. However, the churches are holding virtual Ash Wednesday services.
“It’s been a challenge for faith leaders,” Litsey said. “We’re used to being in the community and visiting people.”
Contributing: Go Erie; Matt Grahn, The Norwich (Conn.) Bulletin; Zach Tuggle, Mansfield News Journal
Follow reporter Ryan Cormier on Twitter: @ryancormier
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