© Reuters. Ash Wednesday Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican
By Philip Pullella VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis brought the world’s 1.3 billion Roman Catholics to Lent on Ash Wednesday as they curtailed a centuries-old ritual to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Francis, who normally marks the start of the penitential season with an open-air procession between two ancient churches in Rome, instead said a mass for about 120 people in St. Peter’s Basilica. During Lent, which ends with Easter, Christians are called to fast, practice more good works, give alms, be close to those in need and those who suffer, and give up something, like sweets. Last month, the Vatican issued guidelines for Ash Wednesday in the COVID-19 era. They said that the priests should spread ashes on the head instead of rubbing it on the forehead, and masks and recite the traditional “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return” once before everyone and not for each congregant. The Pope himself, however, did not fully apply the new rules, generously throwing ashes on the crown of the heads of some cardinals and patting them. Ash sprinkling has been common in parts of Europe and Latin America, while rubbing on the forehead is prevalent in the United States. In his sermon, the Pope said that Lent should be an opportunity to leave behind “the false security of money and comforts … to pursue the things that are here today and will disappear tomorrow” and return to God. When the modified guidelines were announced, some Catholics complained, saying that keeping ashes on your forehead all day was a way to show others that you were a Christian. Others took the changes lightly. “I have enough gray hair. This (sprinkling the ashes) doesn’t help,” one woman tweeted.