St. Thomas recently announced changes to its traditional Ash Wednesday services in light of COVID-19.

Ash Wednesday, which is February 17, will look a little different this year due to minimizing contact and enforcing safety protocols.

Previously, priests would apply ashes on the participant’s forehead in the shape of a cross or another simple marking. This year the ashes will be given without physical contact.

“As people come forward, the ashes will just be sprinkled lightly on the front of their foreheads,” said Father Lawrence Blake, chaplain and director of Campus Ministry. “What we are adopting is actually popular in Europe.”

Additionally, community members are encouraged to register online prior to the service to save their spot as seating will be limited to 76 people in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas and to 72 overflow seats in Schoenecker Hall.

The historical significance of Ash Wednesday

From the times of the early church, Ash Wednesday has been a part of the liturgical year and marks the beginning of the Lenten season. The Lenten season, or Lent, consists of 40 days of penance and penitential action. Ash Wednesday is non-obligatory in the Catholic Church, yet continues to be one of the busiest days of the year for Catholic parishes across America, said Blake.

“[Ash Wednesday] is a time for preparation for those coming into the church. In the early church years, those who were wishing to be baptized would enter into intense preparation during those 40 days as they prepared to be baptized and received into the church,” Blake explained.

“We still do that today, in fact we are working with a handful of students now, two of whom will be baptized at Easter. The others will be received into the church by way of confirmation,” he continued.

In Europe and in various locations across the U.S., the day prior to Ash Wednesday is “a big party day,” as Blake described it. Blake said people celebrate their final day of freedom, if you will, and get ready to fast for the next 40 days.

On Ash Wednesday, Catholics are asked to consume one full meal and two smaller ones throughout the day. None of these meals should include meat.

“So, we say Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting and abstinence from meat,” explained Blake.

Going forward, each Friday throughout Lent is also a day of abstinence. Years ago, Blake explained, the period of Lent was more rigorous as participants practiced this type of abstinence for the whole Lenten season.

“Some traditions still continue that, especially in the Middle East where they refrain from having meat during that (entire) time,” he said.

Penitence is marked on Ash Wednesday with the ashes from some of the palms that were used in previous Palm Sunday services.

“(Some of) the ashes that we use this year were ashes from palms that were burned following Palm Sunday last year,” he explained.

Ash Wednesday Schedule and Registration

Lent begins on Wednesday, February 17. Masses will be celebrated at the regular daily times of 7:00 a.m, 12:10 p.m., and 5:05 p.m. In anticipation of the number of people seeking to observe the start of Lent and the current limitations on seating in the Chapel, there will also be two Celebrations of the Word with Distribution of Ashes that day, one at 9:30 a.m. and one at 3:30 p.m.. Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, so Mass attendance is not required. Overflow seating will be available at Schoenecker Hall.

Please be sure to register your attendance for any of the services ahead of time to ensure your spot. You can access the registration through the Chapel’s Facebook and Instagram pages as well as their website.

Protestant pastor Rev. Medhat Yoakim will preside over an Ash Wednesday Ecumenical service for Protestant students who wish to come and receive ashes. This service will take place at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 17, in Schoeneker Hall on the lower level of Iversen Center for Faith. All are welcome. More information about services can be found on TommieLink.

“People who may just want to see what it’s about are certainly welcome to come. We never turn anyone away. People are always welcome to come,” Father Blake emphasized.


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