After watching a video of how ashes will be distributed on the first Ash Wednesday of the pandemic, a parishioner told Rev. Ralph D’Elia it was upsetting.
Everything was changing, the person said.
D’Elia, parochial vicar at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg, said he understood.
But in an interview Tuesday, he reflected that embracing the past year’s changes may be the best way to capture the spirit of the Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season observed by Catholics and many other Christians.
“We can grow a bigger awareness of what’s essential in our lives in the midst of change, and cling to that,” he said.
Bishop Gregory Parkes, who heads the Diocese of St. Petersburg, has determined that the distribution of ashes can be done this year as long as certain protocols are in place, according to a statement from the diocese.
While some churches have opted for drive-through services and masses on Zoom, others are offering silent blessings outdoors and asking all clergy and parishioners to remain masked. Some are applying ashes using cotton balls or the traditional way, sanitizing between each person.
At St. Jude’s, the number of services has been expanded this year to allow for more social distancing, and ashes will be sprinkled over the crown of the head instead of a cross being drawn on foreheads. D’Elia, who studied in Rome for five years, said the sprinkling method is common practice there and other places outside the United States and United Kingdom.
It’s also an invitation, he said, for believers to look inward.
“Frankly I think this practice of sprinkling on the head, while it’s more discreet, I think maybe it’s a good reminder that the Lord is calling us to internalize this more,” D’Elia said. “So it’s not necessarily a matter of outward show, but more of a matter of internal disposition.”
Lent, the 40 days before Easter, is often marked by prayer, fasting and alms giving. It’s a season of repentance and reflection, said Monsignor Robert Gibbons of St. Paul’s Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. The events of this last year, he said, might lead people to take it more seriously.
“It’s a time for renewal and introspection, both as individuals and as a society,” he said.
Rev. Stephen Mimnaugh at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tampa said the lack of a physical mark doesn’t take away from the ashes‘ meaning. Sacred Heart parishioners can be blessed in the parking lot outside of their cars or on the steps of the church. Ashes will be silently sprinkled over their heads and blessings verbalized at the beginning and end of a ceremony, instead of to each person.
Last year, Lent was interrupted by the onset of the pandemic. This year, after people have given up so many aspects of their normal lives, Mimnaugh encourages them to think of Lent in terms of taking up a new spiritual practice or doing good for others.
“Maybe this year is less about giving things up and more about taking on new things that may be more meaningful,” he said. “Even though we might have to be socially distant, it doesn’t mean we have to be socially unconnected.”
At St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa, ashes will be applied the usual way with extra sanitation or using the sprinkling method, depending on each person’s preference, said Rev. Daniel Kayajan. Lent, he said, is a reminder of the hope that follows, even when things seem bleak.
Despite the pandemic’s challenges, he said, baptisms and masses have still taken place, though in different ways.
“There’s a whole lot of life in the midst of death,” Kayajan said. “I just think Lent helps us to understand, to repent, to change our lives and remind us that our lives are mortal. The key to the whole season of Lent is at the end is Holy Week and Easter, resurrection.”
At Seminole Heights United Methodist Church, ashes will be applied using elongated cotton swabs during drive-through sessions, said Rev. Tiffania Icaza Willets.
Last year was described as “the Lent-iest Lent ever,” she said. But this year may call for a more hopeful message. Willets recommends taking on something new, whether a spiritual discipline or committing to help someone else.
“We’ve had a lot of deprivation,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of folks losing jobs, everyone’s time getting stretched, people having gotten more responsibilities within their families, relationships going through a lot of big transitions. What I’m trying to focus on is the idea of Lent as a season of preparation to celebrate, and Lent as a time to really prepare for that hope that is coming.”