The Christian season of Lent began on Ash Wednesday with many students, faculty, and staff observing at in-person services. Several protocols were put in place by Catholic Campus Ministry and the Truitt Center to ensure safety during the pandemic.
Hundreds of members of the Elon University community observed Ash Wednesday on Feb. 17 spread out over several in-person services. Catholic Campus Ministry (CCM) hosted four of these services while collaborating with other members of the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life and the Elon Community Church to offer an ecumenical service.
“Ash Wednesday is often the day where we see the most students,” states Father Peter Tremblay, associate chaplain for Catholic life. “There’s just something about receiving ashes that really draws members of our Catholic community, but it’s also that many realize what an important season our Church is about to enter into.”
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent – an important 40-day period in the Christian calendar marked by the pillars of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many Catholics, as well as members of other Christian communities, receive ashes in the shape of a cross on their forehead as part of their observance. However, due to COVID-19, the distribution of ashes had to be done differently this year.
“Our bishop [of the Diocese of Raleigh] instructed that we adopt the far more ancient tradition of sprinkling ashes on top of the faithful’s heads. Obviously, touching everyone’s foreheads this year would have been a bad idea,” Tremblay explained. The sprinkling of ashes is also more common throughout Europe as compared to the tracing on the forehead that most US Catholics are accustomed to.
In addition to the change in ritual, CCM also increased the number of prayer services held on Ash Wednesday to encourage smaller crowds at each service. And in contrast to past years, most of this year’s services were held outside under the Lindner Amphitheatre tent, where the weather cooperated and remained sunny, sandwiched between a previous week of rain and a winter storm that followed.
The Lindner Amphitheatre was also the location of the annual Ash Wednesday ecumenical service at 12:15 p.m. There, University Chaplain Jan Fuller was joined by Rev. Sharon Wheeler of the Elon Community Church, Multifaith Coordinator Allison Pelyhes, and Tremblay. Chaplain Fuller offered the homily at the service, reflecting on the themes of mortality and vulnerability, especially in this COVID world. She invited those in attendance to fully accept those themes to keep their hearts open, available, and without fear. “Ash Wednesday is an invitation to vulnerability, and the door to Lent is an opportunity to engage God in an unpretentious way, without shame and without worry,” encouraged Chaplain Fuller.
Livestream options were made available for people unable to attend in-person at both the ecumenical service and the Catholic Mass, which was held in the Elon Community Church at 9 p.m. There, members of Catholic Life staff also implemented an overflow option in the connecting Community Life Center to accommodate the number of students who came to worship. “It has not been out of the ordinary in past years to see over 200 students at the late Ash Wednesday Mass,” Tremblay explained. “Being able to offer additional services and overflow seating helped to alleviate that crowd so that all could observe safely.”
Masks and social distancing guidelines at Mass has been instituted by Catholic Campus Ministry since the beginning of the year. Being able to offer in-person Masses on campus have given some students a sense of normalcy during the pandemic. “It was important for me, especially with the stress of COVID, to have a place to go relax and pray,” shared Elon junior Katie Rocheleau. “[I]t brought an aspect of my old routine back. Mass is something very important to me and I am very grateful to Elon and the CCM community for allowing me to still have the Mass experience.”