Amid the COVID pandemic, changes have been made for Ash Wednesday in Jacksonville

The Ash Wednesday parishioners of the Catholic Church in San Jose and others across the country saw a change before them when it was time for their priest to perform a traditional fasting ritual.

Instead of having ashes on their foreheads under the sign of the cross, Rev. Remek Blaszkowski sprinkled them over their heads.

In those days of the COVID-19 pandemic, all Catholic churches in the United States were told to go to a no-touch ritual at Ash Wednesday services that usher in Lent and Easter.

“I think it was some form of surprise, but we are living during the COVID era. In a way, we have been conditioned to new and different ways of doing business and even the liturgy,” Blaszkowski said. “At the same time, keeping the ashes on your head is a very meaningful sign, not just a mark on your forehead.”

Lent is a solemn observance among Catholics and other Christian faiths that runs until Easter, when the Bible says that Jesus Christ died on the cross and then rose again. It begins on Ash Wednesday with fasting, penance, and usually the traditional application of ash to a person’s forehead.

In a February 1 letter to the Diocese of St. Augustine with 171,000 Catholics in 60 parishes and missions in 17 Florida counties, Bishop Felipe Estevez reminded parishioners how he closed those churches on March 12 because of the pandemic. He reopened them two months later with strict social distancing and masking rules. Now the pandemic is bringing other changes, he said.

The biggest change began on Wednesday to ensure there was no physical contact with church services, an order directly from the Vatican, head of the Catholic Church.

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In a January 12 press release, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship set out the new procedures that priests around the world will follow for the distribution of ashes at the beginning of Lent. It begins after they bless the ashes and sprinkle holy water. Then “the priest cleans his hands, puts on a face mask and distributes ashes to those who come to him” in a non-contact manner, according to the instructions of the Congregation for Worship.

“Or, if appropriate, he goes to those who stand in their places,” they said, and strewed the ashes on each person’s head, “without saying anything.”

Pastor Remek Blaszkowski of the Catholic Church in San Jose places ashes on the head of a parishioner during the service on Ash Wednesday.  The Vatican ordered all priests to do so instead of the traditional way of marking a cross on their foreheads due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Vatican press release also states that “in the Vatican and Italy it is customary to throw ashes on people’s heads instead of marking their foreheads with ashes”. And Blaszkowski said it was familiar to him as a native of Poland.

“This is how I received ashes when I was growing up, and really most of the community around the world is receiving ashes that way,” he said. “For me it was like going back to my childhood.”

The Congregation for Worship Update also stated that the priests’ mask should cover their “nose and mouth”.

Dan Scanlan: (904) 359-4549

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