Churches consider options for Ash Wednesday

COLUMBUS, Ind. — The COVID-19 pandemic will change even some long-standing religious traditions Wednesday. Some churches, including all Roman Catholic bodies, will sprinkle Ash Wednesday ashes over people’s heads instead of applying them on the forehead of the faithful — all in an effort to be extra safe and cautious amid virus concerns.

The no-touch directive came from the Vatican. At St. Bartholomew Catholic Church, Bartholomew County’s largest single house of worship, believers seem to be on board with the adjustment, according to liturgy coordinator Connie Sandlin. Unless forecasted severe weather interferes, she expects strong participation in multiple services.

“Ash Wednesday is still a very big day for Catholics,” Sandlin said. “They really come out.”

Ash Wednesday is one of the most significant days on the Christian calendar, because it marks the beginning of the Lent, a six-week time of preparation and often self-denial before the belief of Jesus’ Resurrection at Easter. Besides Catholics, denominations marking Ash Wednesday include Lutherans, United Methodists, Episcopalians, and others.

The Rev. Clem Davis, St. Bartholomew’s senior associate pastor who has served as a priest for more than half a century, said he cannot recall any other adjustment such as this in his time in ministry.

“We’ve always done the mark on the forehead,” he said.

However, sprinkling ashes on the top of people’s heads, rather than marking foreheads with ashes, is the customary practice at the Vatican and in Italy, according to Catholic websites.

St. Paul Lutheran Church in Columbus will distribute ashes the traditional way on Wednesday according to Pastor Doug Bauman. He has taken time in recent weeks to tell church members that those uncomfortable with those plans can skip the imposition without any guilt.

“They shouldn’t feel compelled to do so,” Bauman said. “We’ve told them it’s not a Scripturally-mandated custom or anything like that.”

The church, though, has enjoyed some recent Sunday services in which its attendance has been at nearly the 90 percent level it was at before the novel coronavirus began spreading in the United States. But its leaders also have been holding a COVID-sensitive service on Wednesdays for those needing extra precautions as they attend.

At First United Methodist Church in Columbus, the congregation has not yet returned to in-person services. So Senior Pastor Howard Boles and Associate Pastor Sarah Campbell will encourage members to dispense ashes — from small packets distributed earlier — on their own foreheads during a livestreamed Ash Wednesday service at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

“I think for the most part, they’re very understanding,” Campbell said. “We are an aging congregation. And until more folks get the vaccine, I think they’re pretty hesitant to be back in worship together.”

The Rev. Kathy Thomas, interim rector at Columbus’ St. Paul Episcopal Church, plans the imposition of ashes as usual on Wednesday at two services.

“If the weather is bad, services will be canceled,” Thomas said. The church website at will include updated information.