Ricardo da Silva, S.J.February 17, 2021
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany, N.Y., sprinkles ashes on parishioners during Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Feb. 17, 2021, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Cindy Schultz, The Evangelist)

“It seemed unthinkable,” wrote Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky., in his Ash Wednesday tweet. “It was just about a year ago when I was reading news reports from Italy that my Franciscan brothers at the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua were cancelling Ash Wednesday services because of the danger.” A year later, the unthinkable has become an enduring worldwide reality. For many Catholics, this will be the first time that they have not been to Mass on Ash Wednesday.

While some feel comfortable attending Mass in person and will stand in a socially distanced line to have the ashes smeared on their foreheads or sprinkled on their heads, in many places churches have, again, been forced to close their doors to protect their congregations from Covid-19. But the beginning of Lent cannot be delayed; and as Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tenn., tweeted, “The great retreat begins!”

Amid the uncertainty that plagues every household, the devastating loss of life and the inability to go about regular routines, bishops have taken to social media to communicate with their flocks—even if to remind them that in these extraordinary times, it’s O.K. to do things differently to accommodate the demands of their particular situation.

A year later, the unthinkable has become an enduring worldwide reality. For many Catholics, this will be the first time that they have not been to Mass on Ash Wednesday.

“Celebrate Ash Wednesday at home, with your family, in the household or ‘support bubble’ of which you are a part,” tweeted Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, United Kingdom. “Receiving ashes is an outward sign of an inner step, a movement of the heart towards our beloved Lord. This year I invite you to concentrate much more on this inner, spiritual movement than on its outward manifestation in the imposition of ashes.”

To help our America readers begin their Lenten retreat, we’ve collected messages of encouragement from the shepherds of the Catholic Church in the United States and beyond.

Today we bow our heads to receive ashes. At the end of Lent, we will bow even lower to wash the feet of our brothers and sisters. Lent is a humble descent both inwards and towards others. It is about realizing that salvation is not an ascent to glory, but a descent in love. It is about becoming little.
Pope Francis, Ash Wednesday homily

For many people this past year has been a time of very difficult challenges & sadly many losses. As we begin the season of Lent, I pray that we will find hope & strength as we accompany Jesus through His time of trials, trusting in the mercy & goodness of the Lord. May our sacrifices help us to be more aware of those who are in need and assist them as we are able.
Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley of Boston

Pope Francis: “Lent is a humble descent both inwards and towards others. It is about realizing that salvation is not an ascent to glory, but a descent in love. It is about becoming little.”

This is the great invitation of Ash Wednesday and of the weeks of Lent which follow. Please do take up this invitation. Open your hearts to the gift of God’s presence to support, comfort and strengthen you. This year, it may be best to do this, not by going to church, but by sharing the prayer, the blessing and this moment of dedication within the love of your family and friends.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, United Kingdom

Mother of Mercy, inspire us with your humility. Help us to ask God for forgiveness, to repent and do penance for all our individual sins and for the sins of the world. May we celebrate this Ash Wednesday, and the entire Lenten season, confident in your Son’s love and compassion.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark

As pitchers and catchers turn up for spring training, we have a hope that spring is near. A good way to think about Lent is as spiritual spring training.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York

Conversion of heart: increase our love of God and neighbor, Love! Let’s be mindful of those in greater need.
Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Seller of San Antonio

Cardinal Timony Dolan: “As pitchers and catchers turn up for spring training, we have a hope that spring is near. A good way to think about Lent is as spiritual spring training.”

Christ is hope and through Him we are a people of hope—find hope this Lenten season!
Archbishop Nelson Perez of Philadelphia

The ashes we receive symbolize our sincere intent to do penance for our sins, remind us that we must die to ourselves to live more fully for God and others, and remind us that we are dust and do not live for this world but for life eternal.
Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Ore.

As we begin this Lenten journey reflecting on the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ, let us be attentive to the sufferings of those who are without power in this frigid cold. May our charitable acts and prayerful concerns come to the aid of those who are in need.
Bishop Edward Burns of Dallas

Let this first day of Lent move us all to pursue the goal of being disciples of Jesus, for real.
Bishop Felipe J. Estévez of St. Augustine

We need to work a little more than usual at making Lent work for us this year but if we do, the return will be greater.... I want to propose three d’s for Lent this year: dream, discern and donate. We’ve got so used to 2-d images, it’s good to have a 3-d focus.
Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick, Ireland

Bishop Edward Burns of Dallas: “As we begin this Lenten journey reflecting on the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ, let us be attentive to the sufferings of those who are without power in this frigid cold.”

Maybe we can do something this year, such as supporting our frontline workers or encouraging compliance with public health regulations in an effort to protect others. These actions could be undertaken as a form of fasting this year.
Bishop Larry Duffy of Cogher, Ireland

While we may give up big meals for 40 days...we should never give up our sense of humor. Laughter is a good Lenten exercise.
Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh

Although it may feel like we’ve experienced an extended Lent since the pandemic began last year, this liturgical season of penance can bring us a renewed sense of purpose for the sacrifices we see making.
Bishop William Medley of Owensboro, Ky.

In our hectic lives, we can easily miss the many ways God reveals his presence. As we prepare for Lent, we are reminded “to slow down” and be attentive. Pray: “Open my eyes Lord. Help me to see. Open my ears Lord. Help me to hear. Open my heart Lord to receive your love.”
Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington

Lent is not a dreary burden but a marvellous annual, God-given opportunity for a personal and communal shakeup. I invite you wherever you are at—even in the midst of tragedy—to see Lent as a gentle and generous invitation from God to open your heart to new beginnings, to a new and deeper walk with God in your life.
Bishop Alan McGukian, S.J., of Raphoe, Ireland

Bishop Alan McGukian, SJ: Lent is not a dreary burden but a marvellous annual, God-given opportunity for a personal and communal shakeup.

The Lenten Season is never a matter between me and my God….we know that together with making time for God in prayer and in listening to His Word, we can only go back to God by developing a culture of care: caring for ourselves, for our brothers and sisters and for the creation that God entrusted to us.
Bishop José Luis Ponce de León, I.M.C., of Manzini, eSwatini

There are the three signposts for our attention during Lent: Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving. These are themes for self-examination. Can they be the means for challenging ourselves, particularly in the experience of the Covid-pandemic, for re-setting our priorities, and stimulating action and change? Lent must be different this year because of the pandemic and the restrictions imposed on our ability to meet together.
Bishop John Arnold of Salford, United Kingdom

Brothers and sisters, this Lent the Lord extends the same invitation to us: “Be converted! Return to me with all your heart! Do not be afraid!” This invitation is even more compelling, given what we have experienced during the past year. While countless numbers of us have known untold physical and emotional pain, loneliness and, in some instances, the grief that comes from the loss of those we love, our very ability to reflect upon the past twelve months is a powerful sign of God’s presence in our lives. Bishop Joseph C. Bambera of Scranton

If you had spiritual resources to give — and we all do, during Lent, by the disciplines we take on, both the things we give up and the things we do — then where would you want those resources to be spent? What do you think most needs restoring in the world, and what contribution can you make, in your own life, to that restoration? Answering that question can produce an earnest, well-targeted Lent.
Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski of St. Louis

Molly Cahill contributed to this report.

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