Ash Wednesday stock photo

This Ash Wednesday, clergy won't apply ashes in the traditional cross, as seen above. Instead, they will sprinkle the ashes on top of the head in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.


Catholics will not receive the traditional sign of the cross on their foreheads during Ash Wednesday this year, per instruction from the Vatican. Clergy will sprinkle the ashes on participants’ foreheads instead, according to a news release from the Diocese of Harrisburg.

The change is being made because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Clergy will bless the ashes and sprinkle them with holy water, then say “Repent and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Those who wish to receive ashes will line up according to social distancing guidelines, and clergy will sprinkle the ashes on top of the head.

The Vatican’s instructions note that the priest will cleanse his hands and wear a face mask while distributing ashes. When he sprinkles ashes on Catholics’ heads, he will do so “without saying anything,” to prevent droplet transmission.

Although the practice may be different than what practicing Catholics have experienced, Most Rev. Ronald W. Gainer, bishop of Harrisburg, said in a news release that it isn’t that uncommon.

“The sprinkling of ashes on top of the head is a common practice followed in many parts of the world,” Gainer said in the news release. “This method of distribution will limit the personal contact between our clergy and parishioners, allowing us to maintain worship spaces that are as safe as can be made during this continued time of pandemic.”

The distribution of ashes is a reminder of mortality and the need for repentance. The ashes are made by burning blessed palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.

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Ash Wednesday makes the first day of Lent, the 40-day period leading up to Easter Sunday. Catholics devote themselves during this time in a number of ways, including fasting during Lent, in imitation of Jesus’s 40 days in the desert.

Catholics 14 and older are obligated to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of Lent. Healthy adults ages 18-59 are asked to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday by only eating one full meal and two smaller meals on those days. Those with a medical condition are not obligated to fast, but may perform another act of penance or charity.

More information and resources on Lent are available at

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