MAINE, USA — Wednesday marks the start of the Catholic Church’s Lent season, but amid the coronavirus pandemic, churches have had to adapt their services.
Ash Wednesday ceremonies typically see priests sprinkling ashes and marking a cross on each other's foreheads, as well as those of the faithful.
The imposition of ashes is a symbolic and meaningful part of the start of Lent. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland explains that while the ashes “symbolize penance and contrition, they are also a reminder that God is gracious and merciful to those who call on Him with repentant hearts.”
In addition Mass being available via live stream, this year the Diocese will avoid physical contact for the imposition of ashes.
“As each person approaches, the priest or minister distributing ashes will take a pinch of ashes between the thumb and forefinger,” the Diocese explained in a release. “While rubbing the thumb and forefinger together, the minister will sprinkle the ashes over the crown of the head in the shape of a cross.”
Rev. Chad Poland of All Souls Congregational Church in Bangor said this year, the imposition of ashes is “a little hard to do.”
While the All Souls Congregational Church is having a typical indoor service—restricted to 50 people per the state restrictions—Poland said they are doing the imposition of ashes outside as people are leaving the service, so it’s “a little safer.”
“Of course, I'll be masked and people will have every opportunity if they choose not to participate, they can just kind of go around and head home following the service so,” Poland said. “[It’s] a slight modification, but we think it will be a very safe gathering and a meaningful one as well.”
The church’s service will also be live-streamed so people who don’t feel comfortable attending in-person can still participate.
At St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, safety measures were also taken during the ceremony Wednesday. Clergy could only sprinkle ashes on the backs of heads and kept their facemasks on, as to respect safety measures. Pope Francis, who was the only one not wearing a mask during the ceremony, received ashes from Cardinal Angelo Comastri.
Listings of Ash Wednesday Masses scheduled for Catholic churches in Maine are available on the Diocese of Portland’s website. Listings of ash distribution outside of Masses are also included.
NEWS CENTER Maine's Hannah Yechivi and the Associated Press contributed to this report.