This coming Wednesday, Feb. 17, is Ash Wednesday. It was just a week into Lent in 2020 that the COVID-19 pandemic brought all of us to a stop. Who would have thought that the effects of this pandemic would still be with us, now a year later?
You and I will give visible testimony to the reality of staying safe when we receive ashes in an extraordinary way this year. Responding to the need to minimize physical contact to avoid the spread of the disease, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Disciple of the Sacraments issued new guidelines, for this year only, on the distribution of ashes.
The words and the intent will remain the same: “Repent and believe in the Gospel!” However, the manner of distribution of the ashes will be extraordinary, at least in the United States. Instead of the familiar sign of the cross on our forehead, we will experience the long-standing Church tradition of sprinkling ashes on the head of the penitent.
Of course, the penitent in the early Church had ashes heaped on his or her head as a public sign of penance. Our gesture will be largely symbolic. Like any change that is temporary, it is a mistake to overemphasize the method of receiving ashes. Instead, allow the ashes to make us humble and aid our public statement of the need for deeper conversion to Christ.
I could not help but think more about the responses of the faithful throughout the archdiocese during this year of the pandemic. Aware of the need to promote the double standard of physical health as well as spiritual health, we have sought to steer a course to keep us safe by physical distancing while continuing worship and formation in Christ.
The distribution of the ashes is one example, but one only needs to look at how we worship at the Holy Eucharist as well as life within our parishes, especially within Catholic schools, to see the heroic efforts in process. There is also a great effort to foster social friendships, which Pope Francis called for in his recent encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” while at the same time remaining physically safe.
From the beginning, I had hoped we would speak less of social distancing and more of physical distancing since we are social beings and can never be separated from the love of Christ or from one another in Christ Jesus.
The beginning of Lent is a good time for me to thank all of you for the extraordinary way in which you have sought to continue to live as social beings thirsting for spiritual growth, both alone and in community, and at the same time sacrificially taking steps, even at times reluctantly, to keep those around you safe.
From the beginning as I issued directives and guidelines based on solid consultation with public health authorities, on the parish level it was ultimately the pastor who was best equipped to work with his people to come up with a plan for worship. To assist pastors with this process, I established a committee of four pastors to join me in receiving feedback and in obtaining answers to new questions.
I am especially in debt to Dr. Brian Reynolds, our chancellor, and Cecelia Price, chief communications officer, for their tremendous efforts in working with health officials and in communicating widely. Within our Catholic schools, I am especially grateful to Superintendent of Schools Leisa Schulz and the heroic efforts of pastors, principals, teachers, staff and volunteers to continue to provide formation in the faith, while at the same time seeking to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Two weeks ago, I celebrated the annual Mass for Catholic Schools Week. While representatives were present, it was not the normal packed church of yesteryear. Instead, we relied on live-streaming to speak of faith, excellence and service. What is true of our Catholic schools is true of the faithful throughout the archdiocese.
Thank you for living and deepening your faith during this time of crisis, for seeking excellence in your response to Christ and for embodying selfless service to others.
May this season of Lent, marked by ashes sprinkled on our heads this year, usher in a time of renewal.