Sprinkling of ashes during the pandemic

BRIDGEPORT—In order to ensure the safety of clergy and the lay faithful, distribution of ashes this year will take the form of sprinkling dry ashes on the top of people’s heads or using a cotton swab rather than the thumb to make a cross.

In a memo to all clergy, Msgr. Thomas Powers, vicar general of the diocese, cited a directive from the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments asking priests to take special anti-COVID-19 precautions this year when distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday, February 17.

The congregation’s note on the “distribution of ashes in time of pandemic” was published on the congregation’s website January 12 and directs priests to say “the prayer for blessing the ashes” first and then sprinkle “the ashes” silently.

If pastors choose to distribute ashes in this way, Msgr. Powers asked them to prepare parishioners by explaining to them how they will be receiving ashes well before Ash Wednesday so as to avoid confusion.

Msgr. Powers said sprinkling ashes on the top of people’s heads, rather than marking foreheads with ashes, is the customary practice at the Vatican and in Italy.

Given the spread of the coronavirus, the practice has the advantage of not requiring the priest to touch multiple people, he said.

This year priests can also use a cotton swab to make a cross on the forehead, using a new cotton ball for each person.

In either practice, when coming forward for the ashes, each recipient will be asked to stop six feet before the priest, who then intones “Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” At that point, the recipient comes forward, receives the ashes and returns to his or her pew.

In order to accommodate as many as possible in a safe and reverent manner, Bishop Frank J. Caggiano has given pastors permission to offer an open period during which the lay faithful can come to the church to receive ashes outside of Mass or the Liturgy of the Word. However, there will be no “drive-by” distribution of ashes.

All those who attend Mass or a Liturgy of the Word on Ash Wednesday must register beforehand in the same way they do for Sunday Masses.