Vatican changing Ash Wednesday in response to pandemic

Ash Wednesday is a traditional day on the Catholic Calendar that signifies the beginning of Lent. Usually it is marked by a parishioner receiving a cross made of ash on their forehead. That will not be the case across the world in 2021. The Vatican announced all of its churches will instead sprinkle ash on parishioners’ heads to avoid contact. Catholic leaders said it's nothing new to some parts of the world.

"Interestingly, that is actually a practice that is followed in some other countries in the world on Ash Wednesday, but we'll be using it here in this country and throughout the world because of COVID," said Father Jim Fenstermaker, the pastor of the Holy Cross South Bend Parish.

Father Jim said the change in recognizing Ash Wednesday still follows the instructions laid out in the Holy Bible.

"It actually alludes to a practice that you find in the book of Nehemiah where it says 'the Israelites gathered together while fasting and wearing sackcloth. Their heads covered with dust.'" Father Jim said. "So, we're kind of following that biblical example of putting the ashes on people's foreheads, covering them in the dust."

Parishioners like Holy Cross Eighth Grader Adam Hartz, said the change went along with several changes the Church has had to make because of the Pandemic and that he didn't mind because the important thing was to actually have an Ash Wednesday Mass.

"Any way we can celebrate it, we should," Hartz said. "Because of COVID, a lot of things have been canceled, but the church will always continue to go on. So, any way we can do is probably really good for us as a community."

Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese Bishop Kevin Rhoades said he was already familiar with the sprinkling of the ash method.

"That's how they did it in Rome when I was a student over there," Rhoades said. "In Italy, the custom was to sprinkle the ashes on people's heads. They didn't impose them on the forehead. So, I remember that very well. So, it's not totally new, but it's new for the United States."

Rhoades said he did not believe this change for Ash Wednesday will be permanent.

"I would expect next year, 2022, we'll be back to putting them on the forehead unless we are in a difficult situation," Rhoades said. "No, that's the last thing we want to think about that we have pandemic problems a year from now."

Rhoades said if you are a Catholic Parishioner on the fence about going to Ash Wednesday Mass that if you are not at a heightened risk for a worse case of COVID-19, you should come out to Mass. He said the churches have worked with local health departments to make sure mass was safe for everyone.

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