By Natalie Duddridge

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a holy day for Christians around the world.

This year, centuries-old traditions have been altered to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

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Timothy Cardinal Dolan presided over a mass with limited seating at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Other churches hosted outdoor or virtual services to commemorate the first day of Lent.

One priest CBS2’s Natalie Duddridge spoke with said many of his parishioners opted to watch from home and forego getting ashes altogether.

“Boy times have changed this year. It was a very quiet mass. We just had mass at 7:30 this morning. We had about 100 people, which is down about 200,” Father Rick Walsh said.

The holy period last six weeks leading up to Easter, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Usually, it involves a lot of close contact, as believers get a cross rubbed on their foreheads. This year, it’s more distanced.

“So the priest explained that the pope recommended as an option sprinkling over the head,” said Jake Marcus. “But since that isn’t popular in America, what they ended up doing was using Q-tips, so they could stand an arm’s length away.”

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Pope Francis marked the start of Lent with a small mass in Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica, instead of the usual procession with thousands in attendance.

In New York City, Cardinal Dolan helped distribute food at the St. Francis of Assisi Church. His lenten message focused on helping others.

“Ash Wednesday isn’t just about prayer and self-denial and sacrifice, which it is. But it’s also about the fruits of that, which is charity, goodness to others, sharing with what we got,” he said.

During Lent, Christians are called on to help the needy, fast, practice good deeds, and give something up, like bad habits, fast food or sweets. But this year with so much lost and already given up, some sentiments have shifted.

“I used to give up chocolate, but what I do now is like I embrace my faith, so I do more prayers,” said Marcia Koutellos.

For some, like Kathleen Day, the first day of Lent was the first time they stepped back inside their parish since the pandemic began.

“Spirituality it’s coming here and praying, hopefully for the pandemic to go away, for us to all be reunited,” she said.

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Many also prayed for the sick and those lost due to the pandemic.

Natalie Duddridge