Ash Wednesday rituals were quite different this year because of the pandemic. At the Chartwell Westmount long-term care residence in Kitchener, Ont., recreation aide Stephanie Zettel, a Catholic, helped residents observe Ash Wednesday. Equipped with blessed ashes from Fr. Larry Parent of Blessed Sacrament Parish, here she anoints resident Patricia Allerton after sharing prayers and readings. Photo courtesy Chartwell Retirement Residences

At-home Ash Wednesday services include inter-church provisions

  • February 27, 2021

This year Lent began with ashes in Northern Ontario, just as it does every year and everywhere. But this year’s ashes up north are a little different because they’re likely the most ecumenical ashes in Canada.

The distribution of Ash Wednesday ashes in the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie happened in individual family homes and in many cases across the denominational lines that separate one kind of Christian from another.

Newly installed Sault Ste. Marie Bishop Thomas Dowd invited Catholics to pick up a small sealed container of blessed ashes from their parish, along with instructions for a family prayer ritual during which family members would sprinkle or apply ashes on one another at home. The at-home ashes rituals were necessitated by COVID restrictions, which still have churches closed for Mass in a third of the diocese from North Bay to Parry Sound.

Dowd also encouraged interchurch families to include everyone in the ritual — Catholic or not.

“We realized early on that if this is happening in homes, what do we do with mixed-marriage situations?” Dowd said.

That the distribution of ashes outside of the Mass could be ecumenical was obvious to Dowd.

“Ashes are a sacramental,” Dowd told The Catholic Register. “And our Church tradition gives a certain flexibility to offer sacramentals to non-Catholics.”

Before sending out a decree authorizing lay Catholics to lead their own, possibly ecumenical, Ash Wednesday service, Dowd got in touch with his counterparts in the next two largest churches in the north — the Anglicans and the United Church. 

“It’s about being good neighbours,” he said.

Anglican Archbishop Anne Germond of the Diocese of Algoma was a little surprised, but very pleased to hear from the new Catholic bishop about a liturgical issue. In the past, Germond would hear from the Catholics only concerning formal ecumenical events, such as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. A discussion about an ecumenical start to Lent was a first.

“But I was not surprised that it came from Bishop Dowd. He has just a wonderful, collegial way of working,” said Germond.

Dowd’s fascination with ecumenism predates his entry into seminary. Doing things ecumenically comes naturally to him and he believes encouraging Christian unity within families is just part of his job. Dowd even got in touch with Muslim and Jewish leaders, just to let them know Ash Wednesday services would be happening in people’s homes.

When Ray Temmerman, long-time advocate for inter-church families, heard how Dowd had specifically recognized inter-church families in his directive for Ash Wednesday celebrations, he was moved to write a note of gratitude to the bishop.

“Such a recognition may not seem like much to many, but I can assure you that it is a sign for us that we are not seen as a problem in the Church, but rather have something to offer by virtue of our being laboratories of Christian unity,” Temmerman wrote.

What Germond appreciated about Dowd’s decree for the distribution of ashes is how it strengthens families to live out their faith at home.

“People are coming to see faith as not something that happens in a church building. … Faith is something that has its origin in the home,” Germond said.

Germond authorized a number of options for Anglicans to receive ashes, including drive-through distribution at Anglican churches. She was very happy to add the Catholic at-home liturgy to the mix.

“This is an opportunity for everybody at home, regardless of their denomination, to participate in something that is a Christian ritual,” she said. “Forget about denomination, but this is a Christian practice.”

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