Virus scare hits Philippines' Ash Wednesday observance

Bishops suggest sprinkling dry ash on the crown of the head instead of marking the forehead with a cross
Virus scare hits Philippines' Ash Wednesday observance

Catholics queue up as a nun sprinkles ash on their heads at a church in Manila on Feb. 26. (Photo: AFP)

Fears about the possible spread of the dreaded coronavirus have affected the start of Lent in the predominantly Catholic Philippines.

Catholic bishops earlier announced that instead of marking the forehead of the faithful during Ash Wednesday rituals, ash would instead be sprinkled on the crown of their head.

Many Filipino Catholics, however, said they preferred to receive the mark the traditional way, on the forehead.

"It's more symbolic," said Julian Marcos, 35, from Novaliches Diocese in the northern part of Manila.

Maria Trinidad, 54, said she feels "incomplete" without the ash on her forehead. "I'm used to having it," she said.

In Boac Diocese, Bishop Marcelino Antonio Maralit Jr. said they will hold Ash Wednesday observance the traditional way.

"Our church is very traditional," he said, adding that the island diocese has reported no coronavirus cases yet. "I don’t think we need to panic in that sense that is why we are keeping the traditional practice of marking the forehead with blessed ashes." 

Sprinkling dry ash on the crown of the head instead of marking the forehead with a cross was part of the liturgical guidelines issued for this year's Lenten observance as a precautionary measure to prevent transmission of the new coronavirus called Covid-19.

Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao, president of the bishops' conference, said ash on the head "signifies our repentance from sin, which has marred the grace of baptism."

"This is not an innovation but in accord with the ancient practice of the Church," said the prelate.

Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo, the apostolic administrator of Manila, urged people to "go to the core meaning of our rites rather than be confused by changed external practices."

Father Jerome Secillano, execu­tive secretary of the public affairs office of the bishops' conference, also said that "confusion and fear "should not stand in the way of a meaningful celebration.

"Ash Wednesday is the day that reminds us of our mortality," he said. "With Jesus let us conquer our fears and strengthen our faith." 

The Philippine government this week started the repatriation of hundreds of Filipinos on board a cruise ship where hundreds of people were infected with the coronavirus.

Manila has sent two chartered Philippine Airlines flights to pick up crew members who have been stranded in a port in Yokohama, Japan.

Authorities said Filipinos who have been infected will not be among those who will be flown back but will instead stay in Japan for treatment.

During Ash Wednesday observance in Manila, some churchgoers noted that while ash was not used to mark the forehead, Communion was, however, received orally.

Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten season, or 40 days of prayer, fasting and alms giving, is observed by Catholics and some Protestant denominations around the world.

The ashes used during the Ash Wednesday observance are collected from the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration.

In some churches, the ashes are mixed with the Oil of the Catechumens, one of the sacred oils used to anoint those about to be baptized, although some churches use ordinary oil.

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