Pope Francis will be celebrating Ash Wednesday at a service in Vatican City, rather than doing a traditional walk to various churches, due to concerns over COVID-19.
Last week, the Holy See Press Office released a statement explaining the schedule change for the head of the 1 billion-member Roman Catholic Church.
Falling on Feb. 17 this year, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent, a period known for fasting or giving up things in preparation for Easter Sunday.
Vatican officials noted in the statement that the pope will celebrate mass and the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday at St. Peter's Basilica, at a ceremony which will have “a very limited number of faithful according to the modalities used in the past months, in respect of the protection measures provided.”
According to Catholic News Service, this marks a departure from the traditional walk from the Church of St. Anselm to the Basilica of Santa Sabina, located on Aventine Hill in Rome.
The two churches are considered “station churches,” which means they were either prominent in early church history or they were built on the burial site of a saint or martyr for the faith.
In a typical year, observing Ash Wednesday involves a worship service centered on spiritual discipline and a reminder that everyone will eventually die.
A key part of this observance often involves burning palm branches from last year's Palm Sunday and then placing the ashes of them in the form of a cross on a person's forehead.
However, due to ongoing public health concerns pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic, many churches are looking to alter the practice to reduce the potential spread of the disease.
The United Methodist Church published a resource article recommending that churches avoid in-person Ash Wednesday services or allow for outdoor services provided “the community [the church is in] falls below a specific threshold in terms of the rate and likelihood of infection as well as the availability of ICU hospital beds.”
“Churches that will be offering some kind of in-person service should also record and make them available to members unable to attend safely,” wrote Philip J. Brooks in the resource article.
“The United Methodist Church does not require those leading an Ash Wednesday service to be ordained or have other ministry credentials, so the service can be carried out in the home among family members entirely.”
For their part, the Catholic Church’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments published a note detailing how Catholic priests should distribute ashes.
The note states that, in addition to the already established public health guidelines of wearing face masks, priests will make the commonly used declaration “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” before imposing the ashes and then sprinkle the ashes on each person’s forehead in silence.