The Rev. Luke Meyer silently sprinkled ashes over the heads of the faithful during a service Wednesday at St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center at UND, marking the beginning of Lent.

Ashes traditionally are used as a symbol to usher in Lent, a 40-day penitent period before Easter in Catholic and some Protestant churches. The ashes are made by burning palms from previous years’ Palm Sunday services.

The ashes have long been sprinkled over the tops of church-goers' heads in some European countries, but tracing a cross or dabbing ashes on the forehead is the traditional way to impose them in Roman Catholic churches in the United States.

This year, the method changed at the Newman Center on the UND campus and other Catholic Churches across the United States. U.S. priests, like Catholic pastors in Europe, sprinkled the ashes over people's heads.

The changes were made to minimize person-to-person contact during the coronavirus pandemic. The Vatican Prefect for the Congregation, which oversees the proper celebration of Catholic sacraments and ceremonies, recommended the changes in the U.S. Ash Wednesday services.

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Meanwhile, this year, in contrast to others, U.S. priests didn’t speak to each person when they distributed the ashes, Instead, they said either “Repent and believe in the gospel” or “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” to the entire congregation before they began sprinkling the ashes.

The symbolism of ashes, which are meant to remind people of death and the need to repent, was unchanged.

At United Lutheran Church in Grand Forks, pastors still marked ashes on the foreheads of those attending Ash Wednesday services, said the Rev. Peter Coen-Tuff. The service was the first the church has held since October 2020.

“Everyone is masked and we were socially distanced,” he said. Individuals receiving the ashes kept apart or remained in family groups. Pastors, who wore two masks, sanitized their hands before moving to the next person or family.

“We still are touching people, but trying to be safe at the same time,” Coen-Tuff said.

Besides attending in-person services at United Lutheran on Ash Wednesday, people had the opportunity to livestream them. Kits, which included ashes, were available at United Lutheran for people to take home and use during the livestream services.

For Catholics, accepting the ash imposition changes recommended in the United States is a good discipline for Lent, Meyer said in his homily during the Newman Center Ash Wednesday service.

“Obedience saves us from eternal solitude because it tells us that the will of another is more important than ours,” he said.

Meanwhile, though there are changes in the Ash Wednesday services, the three ancient Catholic pillars of Lent – prayer, fasting and almsgiving – remain the same. The solitude resulting from the pandemic provides an enhanced opportunity to grow closer to God, Meyer said.

Spending time alone and saying “no” to distractions – such as social media and television – will help people develop a deeper relationship with God and say 'yes' to Him,” Meyer said.

Throughout Lent, the Newman Center also will have opportunities for people to spend time with one another.

At United Lutheran, a Bible study on the Gospel of St. John, available either in person or over Zoom, will be held twice weekly during Lent. There also will be prayer stations set up in the church sanctuary during Lent for people to use throughout the day, Coen-Tuff said.

Besides individual prayers, the Newman Center is encouraging people to observe Lent through Bible studies and service projects, Meyer said.

Last year, Lenten general observances at the Newman Center and in Christian churches across the world were halted about a month before Lent to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The Newman Center and United Lutheran, like many churches, livestreamed services on Sundays, including Easter, for the next few months.