This year, Lent will be ushered in as usual on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17, with distribution of ashes. But expect a touch-free sprinkle of “dust” on your head instead of a smudged brow as U.S. Catholics are accustomed to experiencing. It’s just one of the many variations being planned for the second Lent and Easter season of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some adaptations are a matter of archdiocese-wide policy, others are common-sense changes, still others are the result of parish planners doing a little thinking outside the box – like with take-home ashes.

A key for everyone in a Lent that won’t be quite normal will be to make the most out of the opportunities available for reflection and penitence, said Sara Blauvelt, director for catechesis for the Archdiocese of Washington. 

“This is going to force us to think about the interior aspects of Lent,” she said. 

Jonathan Lewis, assistant secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the archdiocese, said after a year of isolation, deprivation, fear and loss in society, “we’ve never needed Lent more. It’s so relatable this year.”

In “normal” times, Lewis said, it’s easy for many people to brush aside the elements of Lent that touch on death, isolation, illness and healing. But this year, the ashes of Ash Wednesday that symbolize death and the Scripture readings about Jesus’s 40 days alone in the desert are closer to many people’s reality than ever, he said.

Parishes and the archdiocese are offering a wide variety of ways in which to make the most of Lent this year while continuing to respect social distancing and other health-related precautions. 

Last March, the rapid shut-down of churches and other gathering places as the coronavirus spread meant that many Lent traditions – from fish fry dinners to faith-sharing groups -- had to be canceled altogether. Large events such as Good Friday processions were shelved and Masses were pared down and only available over a computer screen. Sacraments usually conferred during the Easter Vigil were rescheduled over the spring and summer in smaller groups.

As the one-year anniversary of pandemic limitations approaches, parishes have resumed severely restricted in-person liturgies, and many other activities continue in the virtual world.  But Lent brings hands-on traditions that can’t be entirely set aside, meaning there need to be adaptations to allow some physical contact, while social distancing and avoiding spreading germs.

For 2021, a set of liturgical guidelines from Father Daniel B. Carson, vicar general and moderator of the Curia for the Archdiocese of Washington, outlines policies and recommendations for incorporating pandemic precautions in Lent and Easter observances in the archdiocese. The guidance circulated to all parishes include:

  • On Ash Wednesday, ashes are to be sprinkled on the recipient’s head, to avoid direct physical contact. 

  • Participating in the Sacrament of Penance is recommended, but “The Light is On for You” initiative, in which archdiocesan parishes hosted Confessions on Wednesday evenings is not planned for this Lent. Parishes are encouraged to offer the sacrament throughout Lent in “safe and creative ways that meet the needs of your people.”

  • Only three in-person representatives per parish will participate in the archdiocesan 2021 Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion this year. The rites will be celebrated in a hybrid format at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Feb. 21 and Feb. 28 with limited, invitation-only participants. All others are encouraged to participate over the livestream. 

  • Guidelines were included for distributing palms at Palm Sunday, for washing feet at Holy Thursday liturgies and for veneration of the cross on Good Friday without kissing or touching it.

Blauvelt noted that last year’s Rite of Election ceremony was the last big gathering held by the archdiocese before the pandemic shutdown. This year, with more time to plan how to support people in experiencing Lent outside the traditional church settings, “we’re really trying to renew how we’re seeing our faith. We’re looking for interior change, happening in the context of our faith community,” she said.

The archdiocesan guidance notes that Pope Francis has modeled the practice of sprinkling ashes on someone’s head. Making a sign of the cross with ashes on someone’s forehead is the tradition in the United States, while sprinkling is common in other countries. The guidelines also point out that receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday is not obligatory and that people who attend Mass that day may remain in their seats, if they wish, while ashes are imposed.

A woman wearing a protective mask receives ashes sprinkled 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, as a safety measure during the COVID-19 pandemic. (CNS photo/Eloisa Lopez, Reuters)

Like the line from Psalm 141, “Let my prayer be incense before you,” Blauvelt said, the sprinkling of ashes, causing them to “float” in the air is an apt metaphor for the Holy Spirit, settling upon someone with grace.

Some faith communities are taking creative approaches to ensuring that parishioners can mark Ash Wednesday somewhat traditionally. One small Catholic community mailed every member an envelope with a small amount of ashes for use at home. Parishioners at the 1,200-family Jesus the Good Shepherd Parish in Owings, Maryland, will be invited to pick up a small packet of ashes for use in their homes, while they watch Mass online.

Father Mike King, the pastor there, said his Pandemic Leadership Team has been thinking creatively since last year about how to keep their Calvert County community together safely. For Lent and Easter, they include take-home ash packets, a comprehensive booklet with all parish Lenten activities, at-home simple suppers, curbside takeout meals and plans for outdoor Easter liturgies. Confessions and Eucharistic adoration will take place inside the church, using appropriate distancing.

“We wanted to make (the use of ashes) accessible,” Father King said. Like holy water, ashes are a sacramental, which may be used by lay people apart from a church setting. Ashes that have been blessed by a priest may be self-administered or shared by a family member. He said the small pouches available at Jesus the Good Shepherd come with a prayer and the text of the words that would be used by a priest or other minister during Mass-based distribution.

Masses there are routinely live-streamed and some may be joined from one’s car in the church parking lot. People who will share ashes within their families are encouraged to do so in the context of one of the Masses.

“We want to encourage heads of households, or maybe an elder, to distribute the ashes,” he said. “It’s one way to build up the domestic church, too.”

This is the cover of a booklet listing Lenten activities at Jesus the Good Shepherd Parish in Owings, Maryland. 

At Immaculate Conception Parish in Washington, one planned activity for this Lent is a 33-day Consecration to St. Joseph, marking Pope Francis’s proclamation of this as the Year of St. Joseph. The observance runs from Feb. 15 and will conclude on the March 19 Feast of St. Joseph. It will consist of weekly on-line gatherings to learn about and honor St. Joseph as the patron of the universal church.

Father Charles Gallagher, Immaculate Conception’s pastor, said his parish of 500 families has many very busy young adults who are sometimes reluctant to make lengthy commitments to long courses of study or ongoing faith-sharing groups.

“We try to emphasize the small groups model,” he said. “Not only does it build the parish community, it builds their faith.” But generally those stick to a schedule of five or six weekly sessions of just one hour a week.

Most normal Lenten practices are continuing at Immaculate Conception Parish, said Father Gallagher, with adaptations. For example, instead of a go-away weekend retreat, plans are for size-limited activity that will open with joining Stations of the Cross in the church on a Friday evening, and participants going home for the night. They’ll return on Saturday for an all-day program in the church, with participants scattered throughout the sanctuary.

Lewis of the Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns office said he expects parishes will come up with creative ways to encourage people to participate in Confession this year, such as by offering the sacrament outdoors. “We are in a period of time when we just can’t stay inside a church for everything,” he said.

Heading outdoors this Lent could mean visiting some of the locations with outdoor Stations of the Cross, Blauvelt said. The Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America in Northeast Washington has extensive gardens with well-spaced Stations of the Cross, for example. The grounds are open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Some parishes also have outdoor stations, including St. Francis of Assisi in Derwood, Maryland and St. Patrick’s in Rockville. Both are open daily and ask that those who visit observe social distancing and use face masks.

Blauvelt had other suggestions for making Lent more meaningful, including making use of the Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl program. The annual almsgiving activity encourages people to donate the money they might spend on a meal each week to CRS relief programs. The CRS website also includes stories of hope, resources about Lent, Stations of the Cross and almsgiving as well as recipes. This year the recipes are geared to meatless Fridays and come from around the world. 

“They’re all simple, inexpensive meals,” said Blauvelt, with “a lot of rice, a lot of beans.” More importantly, they are proportioned for what would feed a family of four in the country of origin. “You see how other people really eat,” she said.