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ASH WEDNESDAY 2021: Faithful sprinkled with ashes in modified distribution format

By Matthew Lau

Archdiocesan Vicar General Fr Peter Whitely and Cathedral Dean Rev Dr Sean Fernandez sprinkle ashes on worshippers' heads for Ash Wednesday 2021. Photo: Matthew Lau.

Pandemic-led social distancing guidelines have forced a change in the way churchgoers received ashes to mark the start of Lent 2021.

Directives for this year’s Ash Wednesday guidelines were disseminated by Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, on 12 January.

Instead of making the sign of the cross on people’s forehead – as has been the normal Ash Wednesday custom of yesteryears – the priest uttered the words “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” to the entire congregation before washing his hands, placing a face mask on himself, and proceeding to sprinkle ashes on the head of people.

Perth Archdiocese Vicar General Father Peter Whitely celebrated the 8am St Mary’s Cathedral Ash Wednesday Mass on 17 February with Cathedral Dean Rev Dr Sean Fernandez concelebrating.

Fr Peter Whitely VG and Fr Sean Fernandez distribute blessed ashes on the top of people’s head at St Mary’s Cathedral during the 8am Mass on 17 February. Photo: Matthew Lau.

Before distributing the ashes on the top of people’s head, Fr Whitely encouraged the faithful to focus their Lenten motives away from self-centred temptations.

“In our celebration and the blessing of the ashes, we’re reminded that it’s not about us – it’s about turning ourselves to God especially, it’s a time of conversion, turning away from the Angel of Light to God,” he said during his homily.

“Let us pray that the Lord will give us the grace to constantly turn away from ourselves – so we turn back to God, the God who revealed His mercy to us in Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection, which we celebrate at Easter.

“We pray that we, in turn, can reveal that God of mercy to other people at this time,” Fr Whitely concluded.

Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB released his 2021 Lenten Pastoral Letter on 11 February, speaking about how grace outpowers sin.

“Lent is a time when we are all invited, and challenged, to recognise that, like Saint Paul, we too have a battle raging within us that so often leads us to be much less than God has created us and is calling us to be,” Archbishop Costelloe wrote.

St Mary’s Cathedral Dean Father Sean Fernandez scatters ashes on the head of a parishioner on 17 February 2021, instead of marking the sign of the cross of her forehead because of coronavirus-enforced restrictions. Photo: Matthew Lau.

“For many Christian thinkers across the centuries, beginning with Saint Augustine, this lack of harmony between where God is calling us and where we find ourselves at any given time, is powerfully captured in the idea of the human person as curved in on him or herself.

“It is as if we are caught in a destructive pattern of looking inward and focussing on our own selfish and often destructive desires rather than looking outward and focussing on the needs of others.”

The coming six weeks of Lent, he said, could be an opportunity for us – as sinful people – to acknowledge that our sinfulness is not trivial, but rather a serious matter that can have destructive effects on others and on ourselves.

“If, by our openness to God’s grace, our faith is strengthened and deepened so that we truly understand and believe that the greatness of our sins is absolutely eclipsed by the incredible love, compassion and forgiveness of the Lord, then as Easter comes we will know what it means to have died with Christ and risen with him,” Archbishop Costelloe added.

Father Peter Whitely VG and Rev Dr Sean Fernandez consecrate the Blessed Sacrament on Ash Wednesday, 17 February, at St Mary’s Cathedral during the 8am Mass service. Photo: Matthew Lau.

“If through our prayers, our fasting, and our almsgiving we have allowed the Lord to help us stand straight, with eyes fixed on Him, and therefore also on those He loves, we will know what Jesus meant when he said to his disciples: ‘I have come that they might have life and I have it to the full’ [John 10:10].

“When God created humanity, he saw that we were, and are, indeed very good. God wants to restore, and deepen that goodness, in us. God wants to unite us more closely with Christ, who is our life. May this Lent be a holy time, a time of growth, a time of renewal and hope for us all,” he prayed.