Sprinkled on the head? Cotton swab? Ash Wednesday to look different this year thanks to COVID

STAMFORD — Churches across the state are tweaking the way they observe Ash Wednesday this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead of using a thumb to mark their parishioners’ foreheads with an ash cross, priests are expected to either sprinkle ashes on the top of their heads or use a cotton swab to make the shape of a cross on their brows.

The Archdiocese of Hartford’s spokesperson David Elliott said while Ash Wednesday is considered an important celebration, receiving ashes isn’t a requirement.

Still, Elliott said Hartford, like the Diocese of Bridgeport and the Diocese of Norwich, is taking its cues from Rome on how priests should distribute ashes amid the pandemic.

According to a January directive from the Vatican, a priest should bless the ashes with a prayer and sprinkle them with holy water. It is recommended the priest bless everyone present, rather than saying the words to each person as they receive the ashes. Then, the priest should wash his hands, put on a mask and sprinkle the ashes on each person’s head — with either them coming to him or him going to them.

Sprinkling ashes on the head is the customary practice at the Vatican and in Italy, said Monsignor Tom Powers, the Diocese of Bridgeport’s vicar general, in a post on the diocese website this week.

Bridgeport Diocese priests, the post said, could alternatively place a cross on foreheads using a cotton swab or ball — and should use a new one for each individual. The priest could recite the usual words when a person approaches him, but they should be 6 feet apart when he speaks.

However churches choose to distribute the ashes, Powers advised pastors to explain the plan to their parishioners well before Ash Wednesday so as to avoid confusion, according to the diocese’s post.

While many might choose to receive ashes during a traditional Mass, the Most Rev. Frank Caggiano, the bishop of Bridgeport, is allowing pastors to offer ashes outside of Mass “in order to accommodate as many as possible in a safe and reverent manner,” according to the post. It noted that people need to register ahead of time if they want to attend Mass on Ash Wednesday.

At St. Peter Catholic Church in Danbury, for example, churchgoers who register can receive ashes during Mass at 7:30 a.m. and noon as well as during a Liturgy of the Word at 9 a.m. Priests also will distribute ashes “on a walk-in basis” from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

“I cannot calculate how many people will choose to participate in Ash Wednesday, but to make it possible for as many as want to, it seems to make sense to have a period of time when parishioners can walk in according to their schedule and not worry about contact with others and social distancing,” the Rev. Gregg Mecca wrote in the church’s bulletin.

In Greenwich, the Parish of St. Catherine of Siena and St. Agnes opted for three one-hour slots for walk-ins. Parishioners will be able to receive ashes at St. Catherine’s Chapel from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. There will also be services at 7 a.m. and 12:10 p.m. at St. Catherine of Siena Church and 5:15 p.m. at St. Agnes Church.

Unlike in years past, the Bridgeport Diocese has said they will not be doing any “drive-by” distributions of ashes such as at train stations or individual businesses.

Elliott said some parishes within the Archdiocese of Hartford may offer ashes via drive-thru, as they have for other services such as confession. But he doubted that many priests would distribute ashes at places other than churches this year.

Earlier this month, Gov. Ned Lamont issued an executive order loosening restrictions on religious gatherings. Indoor gatherings are now limited to no more than 50 percent of the venue’s capacity. Outdoor gatherings are limited to the number of people that can be accommodated safely by the venue or location.

Everyone in attendance at either kind of gathering must wear a mask unless speaking from designated safe locations. And “all persons or groups not from the same household” must stay 6 feet apart, the order states.