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Diocese in South Africa to Use Palm Branches “from other years” for Ash Wednesday

Bishop Joseph Kizito of the Catholic Diocese of Aliwal in South Africa.

The Catholic Diocese of Aliwal in South Africa has a variety of options for this year’s Ash Wednesday, including getting ashes from unused previous years’ palm branches.

This, according to Bishop Joseph Kizito, will make up for the void that was created by COVID-19 last year when Palm Sunday was not marked in the South African Diocese.

In an interview with ACI Africa Thursday, February 11, the Local Ordinary of Aliwal noted that not everyone brings their palm branches for Ash Wednesday and expressed optimism that there are many dry branches “hanging somewhere” in people’s houses.

“Many people still have palm branches from previous years hanging somewhere in their houses. I have some in my room. It will help if these branches are brought into the Church for this year’s Ash Wednesday celebrations to fill the gap that was created last year,” Bishop Kizito said.

South Africa went into COVID-19 lockdown on 27 March 2020 shortly after the Church celebrated Ash Wednesday and did not mark Palm Sunday, a celebration from which ashes to be used in the following Ash Wednesday are obtained.

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Bishop Kizito expressed optimism that there are other palm branches from 2019 in Parish reserves, noting that not everything is used on the very day of Ash Wednesday. It is these leftovers that will be used to obtain ashes for this year’s celebration, the Bishop told ACI Africa February 11.

“There is nowhere that Liturgy dictates that only branches from the previous Palm Sunday are allowed. People are allowed to bring branches as old as five years or older. What we need are the ashes,” the Ugandan-born Bishop said.

The other option is getting dry branches from palm trees, even if the branches were not blessed last year as is usually the case.

“Let people look for palm trees and get dry branches from them. It doesn’t matter that they were not blessed last year. There is room for blessings of their ashes,” said Bishop Kizito.

Members of the Clergy in the South African Diocese are also free to get “any decent leaves” around their parishes and burn them on Ash Wednesday, the Bishop says.

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Making reference to the option of using branches from other tree species, he clarified, “Ensure that you pick decent dry leaves, preferably from a clean environment. I was in some community many years ago where I saw people burning all manner of rubbish from the streets including dirty papers. This should not be the case with this Ash Wednesday celebration.”

He said that those unable to get palm branches should never beat themselves up because “it is not about palms but about the symbol.”

In the interview with ACI Africa, Bishop Kizito weighed in on the directives of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW) concerning Ash Wednesday in a statement that the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) circulated Thursday, February 11.

In the statement addressed to all Archbishops and Bishops in the region and which is to be distributed to Priests, the SACBC Commission for Liturgy highlights the need for leaders in Parishes to ensure that physical contact between persons is avoided in the celebration of Ash Wednesday.

“In order to avoid physical contact between persons but at the same time respecting the communication between persons in the administration of the sacraments and sacramental, the blessed ashes be sprinkled on the crown of the head as directed by the CDW,” the leadership of the three-nation conference says in the statement dated February 5.

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The alternative to sprinkling of the ashes on the crown of the head is sprinkling in one hand of the persons receiving who then sign themselves on the forehead. This is the method that Aliwal Diocese is adopting, Bishop Kizito shares, saying that sprinkling ashes on people’s heads is “a complicated process.”

“The Priest or anyone distributing the ashes will use a spoon to place the ashes in the recipient’s hand. There will be no touching,” the Bishop says, adding, “Sprinkling is complicated in many ways. Women don’t want ashes in their hair and dresses. And men who have a clean shave won’t have anything on their heads to hold the ashes.”

The SACBC Commission for Liturgy has also advised that the ashes be dry so as to make it possible for sprinkling.

In the statement signed by the Commission’s Liaison Official, Bishop Duncan Tsoke, the Auxiliary Bishop of Johannesburg, the distribution of the ashes need not take place during the celebration of Mass “but within a liturgy of the Word.”

“Parishes may avail the faithful of the opportunity for receiving the ashes in small groups of 50 when inside a church; or 100 when gathered in the open air, at regular intervals throughout the day or days following Ash Wednesday,” says the leadership of SACBC Commission for Liturgy.

In Aliwal, Priests are allowed to just conduct the service of the Word, provide a short scripture reflection before distributing the ashes, the Local Ordinary of the Diocese has advised, underscoring the need to avoid lengthy services and the risk of exposing people to infections.

Bishop Kizito says that the bottom line is Priests adopting methods that best suit their situations.

“The guidelines we are giving are not commandments of God,” the Bishop says, and adds, “Each Bishop will talk to their own Priests on the best way to ensure that we do not alter the Liturgy too much while ensuring that people are safe.”

Bishop Kizito calls on Priests and Lay people involved in Ash Wednesday and the subsequent celebrations to adhere to the COVID-19 guidelines given by the country’s relevant authorities.