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Amid the pandemic, Ash Wednesday on Long Island means sprinkles, not smudges

The traditional smudging of ashes for Ash Wednesday

The traditional smudging of ashes for Ash Wednesday celebrations, as shown above in 2019 St. Agnes Parish Center in Rockville Centre, is being discouraged this year by the Vatican because of the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Long Islanders expecting an ashen smudge — either for their forehead or the brows of family and friends — might be disappointed this Ash Wednesday. The Vatican has recommended the usual hands-on smudge, often an ash-drawn cross, be changed for Roman Catholics in 2021 due to COVID-19 protocols.

Across Long Island, Catholic churches are pledging to follow Vatican guidance, which advises the distribution of ashes Wednesday by sprinkling them atop the head, or crown, while observing pandemic protocols, such as the wearing of face masks, hand sanitizing and strict social distancing.

Sean Dolan, a spokesman with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, said Bishop John Barres has given "dispensation" to all Catholics at Nassau and Suffolk's 133 parishes within the diocese, exempting them from receiving ashes.

"Elderly people, people who are sick, people who are immunocompromised, shouldn't feel they need to go and get ashes," Dolan said. "They don't need to risk their lives or their health during the beginning of the most holy season of Lent."

Dolan, added, however, anyone who wants ashes, can get them "at various masses and services throughout the day. The ashes will not be put on one's forehead. They will be sprinkled on top of the head."

For St. Anne's Roman Catholic Church on Second Avenue in Brentwood that means the hosting of six separate Masses, restrictions on congregation size, the sprinkling of ashes at arm's length by the priest or deacon in order to avoid any physical contact, and even the distribution of small bags of ash to homebound parishioners, who will be able to follow services on a livestream broadcast, an administrative assistant said. At St. Patrick's, St. Rocco's and St. Hyacinth's in Glen Cove, that means not only myriad smaller, more socially-distanced Masses for Ash Wednesday, facilities manager Tony Tripp said, but also taped off rows of pews as a reminder for parishioners to maintain safe space.

For the Episcopal Church Diocese of Long Island, plans include an outdoor midday Mass on the steps of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden Cit to help ensure a safe start to the 40-day Lenten season, said Bishop Lawrence C. Provenzano.

"We did observe Ash Wednesday last year and, to be honest, we probably shouldn't have," Provenzano said, noting, for the first time, that he'd actually contracted COVID-19 last winter — a bout with the virus that kept him homebound for five weeks. While the in-person liturgy Wednesday will adhere to COVID-19 restrictions, the dropping of ash onto a parishioner's head "actually is the more-ancient tradition of the distribution of ash for Ash Wednesday."

"The symbolism," he said, "is more about people being humbled by the action [of placing ash] and so, in a sense, there is a bit more humility in that a person bows their head to receive ash to the crown."

The official Vatican website notes that for 2021, priests are being asked to bless ashes, which come from the traditional burning of palm fronds from the prior year's Palm Sunday, then sprinkling them with holy water prior to the recitation of the Roman Missal. At that point, past procedure would be for the priest to distribute ash with either a smudge to the forehead or, in some cases, to draw a small cross. This year, the Vatican asks all priests and parishioners to wear face masks, and for priests to drop ash at arm's length to the top of the recipient's head.

With Antonio Planas

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