DETROIT — The Catholic archbishop of Detroit employed a more COVID-safe method of ash distribution during a special Ash Wednesday service downtown.

He sprinkled, rather than marked.

Priests typically mark a cross of ashes on parishioners’ foreheads using their thumbs as part of the holy day. But the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments asked dioceses around the world to employ an alternative ash-distribution formula to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

Ashes this year can be distributed in two ways: By sprinkling them on top of parishioners’ foreheads or by using a cotton swab to make a cross. The alternative methods are recommended but not mandatory.

“I’m intrigued at how fascinated the media and the world are about our little ritual of ashes,” Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron said during Wednesday’s Mass at St. Aloysius Parish. “Of course, this year… we’ll do it a little differently.”

Following his homily, Vigneron distributed ashes, a symbol of penance, that were made from palm leaves used in last year’s Palm Sunday liturgy. The sprinkling method follows an ancient tradition still common in parts of the world.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a liturgical season of prayer and repentance in preparation for Easter, when Christians commemorate the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“Last year was sort of the last big celebration that we had before the pandemic. And so, thinking now, a year later, it’s a beautiful milestone that we have after the lockdown to be able to come together again,” said the Father Mario Amore, pastor of St. Aloysius.

Beth Allison, 33, was among those who received the ashes.

“It’ll be interesting when I go home,” she said, patting the top of her head and smiling. “I’ll probably have to brush off a little bit.

“But I still feel the same as other Ash Wednesdays.”