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The Rev. Bill Terry of St. AnnaÕs Episcopal Church, distributes ashes during his annual walking trek through the Treme neighborhood on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, in New Orleans, La. Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. Along the way, the small group recited the 14 Stations of the Cross. The group stopped at bars, restaurants, beauty salons and under the Claiborne Ave. underpass. (Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

COVID-19 won’t topple but may alter a seasonal staple: The imposition of ashes at some church services, marking yet one more pandemic change.

Most Rev. Douglas Deshotel, bishop of Lafayette, said in an video message Friday that distribution of ashes, traditionally accomplished in the first day of Lenten, may be done not by making the sign of the cross with ashes on the foreheads of the Catholic faithful but by lightly sprinkling ashes on their heads.

“Ashes will be different this year,” Deshotel said in his message, acknowledging this concession to the pandemic that continues to threaten health and safety. The decision was discussed during a meeting with senior staff this week.

“The symbolism remains the same,” he said.

In his video message of some four minutes, the bishop talked about ways to observe the 40-day Lenten season by extending themselves through almsgiving — works of mercy and charity toward others.

Deshotel suggesting looking for ways we can help our neighbors more, suggesting visiting the sick or running errands for the elderly. “You can make a big difference in the life of a person you help,” he said.

He also said Catholics in Acadiana might prepare themselves during Lent and Easter by increasing their prayers and removing “those things that distract us” from our religious lives.

The bishop said parishes are offering ways to celebrate Mass or the Stations of the Cross. He said Catholics should make themselves “more available” for participating in those services and others during Lent, which starts Wednesday, “making themselves more available for conversion of the heart.”

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Blue Rolfes, diocesan spokeswoman, said the changes in distributing ashes were made at the direction of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Here’s how the changes were explained:

“The priest will say the prayer for blessing the ashes. He will address all those present only once as it appears in the Roman Missal, applying it to all in general: ‘Repent, and believe in the Gospel’ or ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ The priest and ministers will cleanse their hands, put on their face masks and distribute ashes to those who come to (them). Parishioners will bow their heads, allowing the priest/minister to merely pinch the ashes between the thumb and forefingers then sprinkles ashes on the crown of the head, without saying anything.”

The altered method of distributing ashes will reduce physical contact between those imposing and receiving ashes and eliminates the needs of those imposing ashes to speak while in close proximity to those receiving ashes.

The guidance comes as some Catholics question how to approach the observation of Lent during the pandemic. In 2020, the pandemic was declared after Lent began.

In a letter written to The Advocate, one reader from New Orleans noted that it was hard to know what to give up in sacrifice in a time when people have lost their lives and given up school, jobs, visiting family and friends, movies, theater, gyms, sports, museums, restaurants, bars, weddings, graduations, funerals, travel and more. What's left to give up?

Chad Judice, director of catechetics for the Diocese of Lafayette, said Acadiana Catholics can take significant steps to observe Lent and grow spiritually, which he said, is what Lent is about.

He suggested, in addition to fasting and abstaining from meat on Fridays, separating oneself from bodily needs. Fasting, he said, could mean more than two light meals and a typical meal — it could mean fasting entirely for the day. Fasting, he said, can mean not eating at all.

“You should deny yourself something,” he said. “Live out what is said in the Beatitudes. Separate yourself from material needs. You need something not natural but supernatural."


Email Ken Stickney at kstickney@theadvocate.com.