Houses of worship tweak Ash Wednesday rituals in wake of coronavirus outbreak

A cross of ashes.
A cross of ashes. | Creative Commons

Some Christian leaders at houses of worship around the globe began the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday with tweaked rituals and caution in the wake of the deadly coronavirus while others remained shuttered in areas where cases have been diagnosed.

At the Vatican in St. Peter's Square, Pope Francis held his general audience Wednesday as thousands of people gathered with face masks to hear him pray for coronavirus sufferers mask-free.

“I want to again express my closeness to those suffering from the coronavirus and the health care workers who are treating them, as well as the civil authorities and all those who are working to help patients and stop the contagion,” Francis said.

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A number of masses in northern Italy were reportedly canceled due to coronavirus fears.

In the Philippines — one of two majority Catholic countries in Asia, the other being East Timor – instead of making the traditional mark of the cross of the foreheads of the faithful, priests sprinkled ashes on their heads to avoid physical contact.

“Wherever the ash is placed, on the forehead or on the head, the feeling is the same, it’s uplifting,” Editha Lorenzo, a 49-year-old mother of two who was wearing a face mask, told The Associated Press in Manila.

Teer Hardy, an associate pastor at Mount Olivet United Methodist Church in Arlington, Virginia, which has about 350 people on an average Sunday, described the Ash Wednesday ritual as "a very intimate moment.” 

“You’re a couple of inches from someone’s face," Hardy told The Washington Post.

Pastors at his church planned to wash their hands and use hand sanitizer before conducting the ritual.

On Thursday, media reports said the 83-year-old pontiff developed "slight indisposition" a day after his mask-free public appearance where he interacted with the public. The Vatican said Pope Francis would proceed with the rest of his planned work but "preferred to stay near Santa Marta," the Vatican hotel where he lives.

On Tuesday, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned schools, hospitals and businesses to prepare for the inevitable spread of the deadly coronavirus in the U.S., which “could be bad.”

“It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said at a news conference.

The outbreak of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) caused by the 2019 novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) began in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China in December 2019. Since then, according to the CDC, it has spread throughout China and 31 other countries and territories, including the U.S.

As of Feb. 23, there were 76,936 reported cases in mainland China and 1,875 cases in locations outside mainland China. There have also been 2,462 associated deaths worldwide.

Many of the largest Christian denominations in the U.S. say they are monitoring the spread of the virus closely but have not yet issued any special directives to their churches on how to respond beyond guidance from the government.

“What does it mean to sit in the pew with people coming off the streets or folks who need a stopgap?” Hardy asked. “The decision is we’ll follow the CDC and other health organizations. We’re trained clergy, not health professionals. We don’t want to spread unnecessary concern and panic.”

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