Ash Wednesday During COVID-19

Rachel Fleagle, Section Editor

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. Although Catholics and other denominations normally have an in-person service where the priest draws a cross of ashes on each individual’s forehead, COVID-19 has disrupted the centuries-old practice.

The Vatican issued a statement describing new safety regulations for Ash Wednesday this year. The Diocese of Harrisburg oversees many parishes throughout Pennsylvania and posted a media release to their website on February 11 detailing more information for the local area, which also includes a live stream to Harrisburg’s Cathedral Parish of Saint Patrick Mass. HawkEye spoke with the Diocesan spokesperson on some concerns practitioners might have for this year’s Ash Wednesday:

How will churches enforce mask requirements and physical/social distancing per state and CDC guidelines?

The Diocese of Harrisburg developed COVID Liturgy and Sacrament Guidelines to be used by all Catholic parishes in the Diocese. These guidelines provide details regarding sanitization, social distancing, and mask/face covering for Mass and other liturgical celebrations. For example, our parishes have been asked to use tape or rope to indicate proper social distancing within the parish buildings, including the pews. Sanitization also takes place after every Mass, with many of our parishes relying on teams of dedicated volunteers to complete the cleaning. The full Liturgy and Sacrament Guidelines can be found here.


How many churches choose to reduce capacity and hold more services to reduce contact among parishioners?

All of the 89 Catholic parishes in the Diocese of Harrisburg are following the COVID Liturgy and Sacrament Guidelines, including following social distancing guidelines. Some of our parishes have increased the number of Masses offered and many of our parishes are relying on technology, including live streaming and radio broadcasting, to reach the faithful who are unable to attend in-person at this time.


Is there a history of sprinkling ashes on the head, such as during other pandemics, or is this precedent-setting? 

The sprinkling of ashes on top of the head is a common, traditional practice in many parts of the world. Given the continued concerns with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Holy See (i.e. Vatican) has instructed that this practice be observed in all Catholic churches this year.


What are the plans for the distribution of ashes for Catholic schools/schoolchildren?

Every Catholic school has a unique plan regarding Mass attendance, which meets Diocesan COVID safety guidelines and the needs of their individual facility. Every Catholic school student will have the opportunity to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, but some students may watch a stream of the Mass from their classroom and then the priest or deacon will visit the classroom to distribute ashes.


How does the Diocese respond to observant Catholics who have preexisting conditions, but have concerns about missing a holy obligation such as Ash Wednesday? 

While Ash Wednesday is a very important day for the Church, it is not considered a Holy Day of Obligation, meaning Catholics are not required to attend Mass. The Dispensation from Bishop Gainer is also still in place, given the ongoing pandemic. Parishioners with compromised immune systems should reach out to their parish directly for information on receiving ashes.


What sort of additional steps are being taken during Mass for the protection of the congregation?

All parishes are asked to be diligent in following the Liturgy and Sacrament Guidelines. Some additional efforts to maintain worship spaces that are as safe as we can reasonably maintain include:

  • Removing hymnals and other liturgical books; parishes will provide one-time use workshop aids which include the readings and responses for the Mass. These worship aids can then be disposed of by parishioners, limiting the number of surfaces the faithful may be touching.
  • All parishioners attending Mass and/or entering the church facility must wear a face mask, except for those with a medical condition that have been advised by a physician to not wear one. Additionally, children under the age of 2 are also exempt from wearing a mask. During Mass, please only remove your mask when receiving Holy Communion.
  • All clergy are to wear face masks during the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, except when proclaiming the Gospel, preaching and making announcements, and while at the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Face masks must be worn during the distribution of Holy Communion (in all circumstances) and when processing into and out of the sanctuary.
  • Holy Water fonts remain empty, yet many parishes are providing small bottles of Holy Water for parishioners to take home.
  • The Sign of Peace has been omitted from the Mass