Catholic churches hold annual service with COVID-19 precautions in place
Our Lady of Guadalupe held seven Ash Wednesday services in its courtyard Wednesday afternoon. The church, at 227 N. Nopal St. in Santa Barbara, along with congregations around the world, adapted its traditions with COVID-19 precautions.
The Vatican encouraged congregations to sprinkle ashes on the crown of parishioners’ heads, an ancient practice. But some churches have tailored the act in other ways.
Father Pedro Lopez, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, chose to smudge a cross on congregants’ foreheads, as he does every year, but had them wipe their foreheads off with sterile alcohol pads beforehand.
“A lot of the people like to be able to see the ashes on the forehead,” he told the News-Press. “The sign has value, and you can see it has importance.”
He described the ashes as a “sign of repentance and wanting to be forgiven.”
While administering the ashes he usually says, “Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel.” But Wednesday, he said it before attendees lined up for the ashes, keeping them safe from any droplets that could catch the air as he spoke.
Congregants gathered around the pavilion outdoors in folding chairs set up in groups of one, two and three. Ushers squirted hand sanitizer on palms as people entered.
To take financial offerings, ushers held a basket on a long pole, gathering the money from a safe distance.
Father Lopez’s message to the congregation acknowledged the strange realities of the pandemic.
“Death is a reality. It’s been made very evident in what we’ve experienced in this past year. All of this can cause us to become depressed, anxious, to lose hope, to become angry and upset. But it is also an opportunity for us to become more aware of what truly matters,” he said during the service.
Ash Wednesday is a traditional time to admit wrongdoing and begin Lent, a 40-day period of preparing oneself to celebrate Easter. The humbling message is poignant in a pandemic.
“In a time of anxiety and stress and worry, it’s important to make room for God. If you had not been doing that, it’s kind of a wake-up call,” Father Lopez told the News-Press.
He said the tradition is uplifting, especially this year.
“It’s a sign that as a community we stand together, and there is hope,” he said.
Last year’s Ash Wednesday, COVID-19 had not yet impacted his church. Since the onset of the pandemic locally, he hasn’t known what to expect at each service.
“I’m not sure how many people will turn out (Wednesday). It’ll be interesting to see what kind of a crowd we get,” he said prior to the first service. “This year, we have no way of knowing.”
During the bilingual program, the first of seven services, around 60 people observed Ash Wednesday.