Churches, congregations navigate first Lent, Ash Wednesday during pandemic

pandemic Ash Wednesday
Posted at 5:55 PM, Feb 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-18 12:53:23-05

CINCINNATI — Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, typically involves coming together in close proximity with other church congregants and the priest performing the rites, but as the world continues to grapple with a deadly pandemic, these rites have had to take a step back physically and chronologically.

"Instead of someone right in your face, putting the ashes and speaking in your face, the priest will take the ashes, put some holy water with them to bless them like he typically would do then speak the words one time to the entire congregation," said Jennifer Schack, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

Then, the priest dons a mask to instead sprinkle the ashes on each person's head, both limiting physical touch and hailing back to the European way of observing Ash Wednesday.

"It kind of goes back further than the thumb tracing," said Dominick Albano, with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. "So, in a certain sense, it's an even more traditional way of doing it."

At Anderson Hills Methodist Church, the practice is different still.

"We've made available these packets and it's basically the ashes brushed on a piece of paper and they will take it and just move their finger across their forehead and put it on their forehead," said Susan Mahaney, communication director of Anderson Hills Methodist.

As for Lent, Albano has put together a guide to observing the holiday, a 75-page illustrated book designed to help people navigate it during the pandemic, when churches must deal with social distancing and perhaps even observing at home.

"It's filled with great information about Lent," said Albano. "Spotify playlist, recipe cards -- meat-free recipes -- baseball and how that relates to Lent, five ways to be like St. Thérèse of Lisieux."

Friday fish fries are the biggest tradition in jeopardy this year, but most parishes are still offering a pick-up option.

"Just like some restaurants, right, there's no in-person dining but there is some drive-through options," said Albano.

Although, Albano said, it's already been "a very Lenten year," churches are working hard to make it possible to observe the holidays in a safe and meaningful way.

Editor's note: Anderson Hills Methodist Church's communication director, Susan Mahaney, is the wife of former WCPO news director Chip Mahaney.