To dust you shall return: Ash Wednesday to utilize ancient sprinkling rite this year

Fr. Paul Snyder, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Royal Oak, dips his thumb in ashes last year on Ash Wednesday. This year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Vatican is advising dioceses worldwide to use a different, older form of the rite, sprinkling ashes on top of penitents’ heads. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

Coronavirus protocols necessitate return to old form of penitential rite common in Italy and Europe, recalling sacramental’s original roots

DETROIT — Catholics in the Archdiocese of Detroit will experience a new — or, rather, very old — rite of penitence this year on Ash Wednesday.

Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has asked dioceses around the world to use an alternative formula for the traditional imposition of ashes.

“We're used to the thumb-to-forehead method with the cross as our way of distributing ashes. That is not forbidden (this year), but the Holy See has said that due to the coronavirus, it is recommending and advising that ashes be distributed through sprinkling instead,” said Fr. Stephen Pullis, director of evangelization and missionary discipleship for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

Instead of individual prayers over each person, the priest may instead pray once over the whole congregation, either “Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” or “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Priests may use a Q-tip to make the sign of the cross on people’s foreheads, but penitents should not “self-impose” ashes.

Fr. Ray Stadmeyer, OFM Cap., imposes ashes on a penitent’s forehead last year during Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Detroit. (James Silvestri | Special to Detroit Catholic)

The sprinkling rite is common in Italy and other places in Europe, but it actually goes back much further than that, Fr. Pullis said.

“Ashes on Ash Wednesday is a sign from the Old Testament, where being covered in ashes is a sign of repentance,” Fr. Pullis said. “When the prophet Jonah calls the city of Nineveh to repentance, we see the king of Nineveh and the people cover themselves in ashes. It's a way of humbling ourselves before the Lord.”

The practice continued in ancient Rome, where Christians who had grievously sinned would dress in sackcloth and cover themselves in ashes to begin their public penance on the first day of Lent. Their penance would continue until Holy Thursday, when they would be reunited with the Christian community.

By the 10th century, the practice had fallen into disuse, and instead the beginning of the penitential season of Lent was marked — literally — by the priest placing ashes on the foreheads of each congregant.

In modern times, the sign of the cross on the forehead on Ash Wednesday has become a very public way for Catholics to proclaim their faith to others, said Sr. Esther Mary Nickel, RSM, director of worship for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

A woman wearing a protective mask receives ashes on top of her head during Ash Wednesday Mass at the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Manila, Philippines, on Feb. 26, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (CNS photo/Eloisa Lopez, Reuters)

“We’re kind of bold about our faith in that way, aren’t we?” Sr. Nickel said. “People want to have that big, black cross on their heads. I don’t see that as vanity. Rather, I think it’s a longing and a desire to be bold and to proclaim our faith.”

Sr. Nickel noted more Catholics come to Mass on Ash Wednesday — which isn’t a holy day of obligation — than any other day of the year besides Christmas and Easter.

“People are drawn to goodness, but yet we know we sin,” Sr. Nickel said. “On Ash Wednesday, we all come before one another as sinners, asking for forgiveness and repentance. So I think this deep longing to return to the Lord, to beg the Lord for mercy, is what we’re responding to. We know that God loves us and wants us to be with Him.”

Sr. Nickel said the innate longing of Catholics to return to church on Ash Wednesday — even if they can’t verbalize it — is a sign of recognition of how much God loves his children. It’s also a good opportunity to re-introduce people to the sacrament of confession, she added. 

This Lent, the Archdiocese of Detroit is launching a new website to help people find confession times near them,

The tradition of ashes of Ash Wednesday began in ancient Rome, when penitents who had committed serious sins would cover themselves in ashes for the duration of Lent, awaiting their reunion with the Christian community on Holy Thursday. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic) 

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to represent the beauty of the sacrament of confession as a sacrament of mercy and love,” Sr. Nickel said. “We know that in our hearts, and I’m quite convinced that's why people come (to Ash Wednesday services).”

Despite the different rites this year, Ash Wednesday remains a day for Catholics to consider their relationship with God, and to invite others to do so, Fr. Pullis said.

“It's a way of reminding ourselves that the things of this world will ultimately fade away, and we should invest in and store up our treasures in heaven,” Fr. Pullis said. “Lent is a time to repent, to turn away from sin, and ashes are a symbol that the things of this world are passing away — that the only true hope we have is giving ourselves wholeheartedly to Jesus Christ.”

Ash Wednesday Mass

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron will celebrate his customary Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Aloysius Parish, 1234 Washington Blvd., Detroit, at 12:15 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 17. The Mass will also be livestreamed.