Ash Wednesday: Different look, same message

Father John Hammond, Vicar General of the Diocese of Nashville, explains how ashes will be distributed in the diocese and around the world on Ash Wednesday as a precaution against spreading the coronavirus. While this method is new to many in the U.S., it was already common practice in Rome and much of the world.

Ash Wednesday, as with many other things right now, will have a different look at many Catholic parishes across the United States this year, including in the Diocese of Nashville.

For starters, Catholic churches that are often standing-room only on this day – drawing crowds just short of the Easter and Christmas Masses – will be at their pandemic-restricted size limits with members of the congregation spread out in socially distanced seating.

“Even though it’s not a holy day of obligation, it’s traditionally one of the most well-attended Masses of the year,” said Father John Hammond, Vicar General of the Diocese of Nashville and pastor of St. Patrick Church in Nashville. “People find such a compelling message,” in the Ash Wednesday themes of penitence and sacrifice, he said.

Many people attending Ash Wednesday Mass in-person this year on Feb. 17 will have their first experience with a different way to receive ashes: sprinkled on the top of their head rather than receiving a cross of ashes on their foreheads.

The note on the “distribution of ashes in time of pandemic” was published online in January by the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

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 an individual’s forehead 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.

“These are the common directives for the entire Church throughout the world,” said Father Hammond. “This is how the Vatican is instructing us to do it this year” because of the ongoing pandemic, he said.

The sprinkling of ashes “is actually very common practice throughout the world,” said Father Hammond. When he was studying and living in Rome, he received ashes this way, “where it’s almost a universal practice.” And as a priest in Nashville, “I’ve had European immigrants ask to receive ashes that way.”

Father Hammond and other priests will be working to inform and educate people ahead of Ash Wednesday on what to expect for the distribution of ashes that day. He also plans to tailor his Ash Wednesday homily to preach about the reception of ashes and “the beauty of the symbol,” he said. “It’s a symbol of penitence rooted in Sacred Scripture.”

Father Bruce Morrill, S.J., the Edward A. Malloy professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, said a change in the way ashes are imposed might disappoint many Catholics who are accustomed to the look and feel of Ash Wednesday.

But as he and others pointed out, sprinkling ashes on the top of people’s heads is not something new but is a customary practice at the Vatican and in Italy. It also has historical roots linking back to the penitent aspect of ashes.

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 known to the public 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, Father Morrill said.

But he also noted that 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.

Father Morrill told Catholic News Service Feb. 1 he knows that doing something different is “hard for people especially when so many are already stressed out and tired. I get that, but such are the circumstances we are in,” he said, noting 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.

Father Hammond knows that people are weary of the pandemic and accommodations required by it. “The bishop certainly appreciates everyone’s patience and understanding that things have to be a little different right now,” he said. “This will ensure everyone’s comfort and safety.”

The sprinkling of ashes will be new and different for many this year, but, Father Hammond said, “it respects the liturgy and traditions of the Church, and is really a very authentic way Catholics have historically received ashes.”

Carol Zimmermann of Catholic News Service contributed to this report.