Almost a year since the country went into lockdown for the first time, the Church in England and Wales is preparing to celebrate Ash Wednesday under unprecedented circumstances, with Catholics in some parts of the country being urged to stay at home and bless one another with the sign of the cross to mark the beginning of Lent.
While churches in England are still open for public worship, Cardinal Vincent Nichols told parishioners in his Diocese of Westminster this week: “Receiving ashes is an outward sign of an inner step, a movement of the heart towards our beloved Lord. This year I invite you to concentrate much more on this inner, spiritual movement than on its outward manifestation in the imposition of ashes.”
Speaking to churchgoers in London, where the South African variant of the coronavirus has been detected in several boroughs, Cardinal Nichols said: “My suggestion is this: celebrate Ash Wednesday at home, with your family, in the household or ‘support bubble’ of which you are a part.”
In a pastoral letter due to be read out in diocesan churches this weekend, Cardinal Nichols outines a form for marking the beginning of Lent in the home, starting with a time of prayer: “Bless each other by making the sign of the cross on each other’s forehead. Spend some time praying in a way that you know. But please, make this a prayer of your heart for God’s mercy upon this world struggling to cope with the terrible pandemic and the devastation it is bringing.”
He suggests Catholics use one of the traditional blessings for the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, such as: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” or: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
He likened the practice of blessing one another within the family to the tradition of a parent making the sign of the cross on their child’s forehead before sleep, and urged Catholics not to hesitate to do this: “Please do take up this invitation. Open your hearts to the gift of God’s presence to support, comfort and strengthen you. This year, it may be best to do this, not by going to church, but by sharing the prayer, the blessing and this moment of dedication within the love of your family and friends.”
Churches in England will still hold Ash Wednesday services, the cardinal noted, and he observed that they are safe environments if protective measures are followed. “But we must all be very careful about travelling too far. Some churches will of course be open for the celebration of Mass as usual. But I have asked them not to make extra provision for Ash Wednesday. We must be so careful and cooperative in the measures we must take, to protect ourselves and to protect others.”
Services for Ash Wednesday will be conducted differently this year, with priests asked to sprinkle ashes over congregants rather than marking their foreheads with the sign of the cross. This advice by the bishops’ conference follows guidance issued by the Vatican, which customarily sprinkles rather than imposes ashes.
Because of the ongoing pandemic there is still no obligation to attend Mass on Sundays or holy days of obligation.
Meanwhile in Scotland, where public worship is banned, the Catholic Union has continued to lobby for churches to be reopened. Head of public affairs James Somerville-Meikle said: “It’s disappointing that the Scottish government has ignored our call to publish the data behind its deci- sion to close places of worship in Scotland. The announcement that churches will not be allowed to open until at least mid February will be a blow to many.
“Closing places of worship must not be allowed to become a normal response to challenges we face. Our churches are essential to millions of people in this country and the communities they serve.”