ROME – During the COVID-19 pandemic, many bars and restaurants have launched takeout services to keep their businesses afloat, and now one Catholic bishop is following suit for Ash Wednesday.

Bishop Thomas Dowd of the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario, Canada is overseeing the distribution of 12,000 containers with ashes to the faithful with a brochure with several prayers that the faithful can recite at home.

Ontario declared state of emergency Jan. 11 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My churches are closed, and any service is limited to 10 people max,” Dowd told Crux via Twitter messenger on Thursday. “We hope this may change by Ash Wednesday, but who knows? So, we took this route.”

By “this route” he means giving Catholics the option to pray together with their families at home and still begin the season of Lent in the “traditional way,” with the ashes.

“We do not want to let the COVID-19 pandemic get in the way of this important day,” Dowd said in a press release Thursday. “Ash Wednesday remains a very popular day of devotion among Catholics.”

Ash Wednesday for Latin rite Catholics takes place February 17 and marks the beginning of the period of Lent which calls for 40 days of prayer, fasting and charitable works ahead of Easter Sunday.

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The ashes, usually marked by tracing a cross on the forehead, are meant to publicly signify the spiritual journey Christians begin together on the day.

As the decree announcing the “options for Ash Wednesday” issued by Dowd says, the Catholic tradition already recognizes the possibility of the distribution of ashes outside of Mass, so his diocese is building on this flexibility as a form of outreach.

“Despite the challenges we face there is a bright side: The possibility of hundreds, even thousands of people praying together in their homes,” he wrote. “For some, this may be the first time they ever live such an experience. God can do wonders when we approach him with an open heart, so let us pray that Ash Wednesday 2021 will be an occasion for him to lead us all on a path of renewal.”

People can reach out to their parishes in Sault Ste. Marie to find out when they will be distributing the ashes. If there’s a “founded belief” that the blessed ashes will be treated disrespectfully, then parishes will be able to refuse handing them out.

This year, priests will bless the ashes on Wednesday, and parishioners are welcome to take home a small container, courtesy of the diocese, together with a short prayer service that includes readings from the Bible and instructions on how to distribute the ashes.

“Making sure everyone is included and encouraging our families to pray together on this holy day is quite significant,” Dowd said. “It’s an opportunity for families to begin Lent together, to share with one another the importance of this time of year.”

“We ordered 6,000 containers, and had to order more,” Dowd told Crux. “And the public is only hearing about it as of today, that 6000 was purely via the parishes and their email lists.”

The bishops said this means that, with an average of 2.5 people per household, there will be 15,000 celebrating the prayer of the church in their homes.

“There is an ecumenical dimension to this too,” Dowd added. “I specifically authorized distribution to family members who are not Catholic (mixed marriage situations for example). The other churches received this very warmly.”

The prelate also authorized the distribution of blessed ashes until the end of February, meaning that Ash Wednesday “will last two weeks this year, you might say.”

This is in an attempt to give people enough time to hear about it and take part, and also to guarantee everything is done in accordance with health regulations.

In his Ash Wednesday statement, Dowd expressed his vision of hope for Lent: “When we set aside time to grow in faith, especially in the time we are in, we begin to see God’s boundless love for each one of us, despite the personal challenges we are facing.”

Catholics who live alone should “attempt to join with others,” following all the public health norms, and only if truly impossible pray the ritual in private.

If any ashes remain in the container, the decree from Dowd notes that they are still blessed and as such, should be treated respectfully. This means they should either be returned to the parish or buried underground, but not thrown in the garbage or flushed down a toilet.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma