February 16, 2021

Rwanda’s Catholics Preparing Different ‘Ash Wednesday’ for Start of Lent Period in COVID-19 Pandemic


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Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent (fasting and abstinence) and is always 46 days before Easter Sunday.

For 2021, Catholics in Rwanda are going to have a different start to Lent period than they have done for centuries. There will not be the customary painting of crosses on the foreheads of congregants.

Monseigneur Smaragde Mbonyintege, the Catholic Bishop of Kabgayi Diocese, announced on Monday that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ash Wednesday is going to be observed differently. It will be done by family heads at home, instead of being conducted by a priest at church.

For both the Catholics and Protestants, and other Christian faiths, in February, falls the traditional ‘Ash Wednesday’ that marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day season (not counting Sundays) marked by repentance, fasting, reflection, and ultimately celebration. It leads up to Easter in April.

Usually, the day after Ash Wednesday, there are a lot of people walking around with an ash cross on their foreheads. They will have gotten that Ash from their churches.

Towards the end of mass which is held in the evening, the congregation will be invited to receive the ashes on their foreheads. Usually, as the priest or pastor will dip his finger into the ashes, spread them in a cross pattern on the forehead, and say, “From dust you came and from dust you will return.”

In many congregations, the ashes are prepared by burning palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday, churches bless and hand out palm branches to attendees, a reference to the Gospels’ account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when onlookers lay palm branches on his path.

Monseigneur Smaragde Mbonyintege, the Catholic Bishop of Kabgayi Diocese

For the Ash Wednesday of 2021, which falls this Wednesday February 17, there will NOT be prayer sessions across Rwanda, as all places of worship have been closed for about a month now as part of COVID regulations. They may remain closed for some weeks.

Monseigneur Mbonyintege, in announcing the changes to how Ash Wednesday will be conducted tomorrow, said even if there is the COVID pandemic, it doesn’t mean Christians cannot fast.

Priests at parishes will prepare enough ash which will be at the parish. One person from each household will pick the ash to be taken home. While at home, according to Monseigneur Mbonyintege, one member of the household preferably the parent will paint the crosses on the foreheads of everyone in the home “but without touching them”.

Ash Wednesday, Lent and Easter are important religious traditions in Rwanda. A national census conducted in August 1992 showed that 62.6% of Rwandans were Catholics, from a population of 7.1million. After the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, another census took place in 2012, this time putting Catholics at 44% of the population. Another significant percentage are Protestants and other Christian faiths.

Painting of crosses is a centuries-old tradition

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