York church abandons Ash Wednesday tradition amid coronavirus scare

Catholic churches in parts of Yorkshire abandoned the ancient practice of blessing and distributing ashes today – Ash Wednesday – amid continuing fears over the spread of coronavirus.

At York Minster, Lisa Power and Danny Knight receive the sign of the cross marked in ashes on their foreheads, from The Revd Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner at York Minster, during the Imposition of Ashes on Ash Wednesday.
At York Minster, Lisa Power and Danny Knight receive the sign of the cross marked in ashes on their foreheads, from The Revd Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner at York Minster, during the Imposition of Ashes on Ash Wednesday.

At least one parish in York, where two people were taken ill with the virus while staying at a hotel, said it had held Mass without performing the ritual.

The Reverend John Bane, priest of the York English Martyrs Parish in the Middlesbrough diocese, said: “We’re not distributing ashes today,” adding that the decision had been taken as “a general precaution”

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The ashes placed on the foreheads of participants as a sign of repentance are usually made at each church by burning the palms from the previous Easter’s Palm Sunday. However, some are imported from Spain and other parts of Europe – though not from Rome, which is at the centre of a large-scale outbreak of coronavirus, a source told The Yorkshire Post.

The Catholic church has published guidance for parishes, highlighting the importance of “good hygiene especially at Mass and parish gatherings” and reminding priests to sanitise their hands before and after distributing communion.

But it says there is “no need as things stand”, for the Chalice to be withdrawn, as happened during the 2009 flu pandemic.

The Diocese of Leeds said the precautions it was taking were similar to those during the regular cold and flu season.