Wed | Apr 1, 2020

Pope observes usual Ash Wednesday customs in time of coronavirus

Published:Wednesday | February 26, 2020 | 5:48 PM
Pope Francis salutes faithful in St Peter's Square at the Vatican before leaving after his weekly general audience, Wednesday, February 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis celebrated the Ash Wednesday ritual that marks the opening of the Catholic Church’s Lenten season in traditional fashion while greeting the public in Rome as other Masses were cancelled in northern Italy over fears of the coronavirus outbreak.

Francis and a long line of priests, bishops and cardinals walked in a procession through Rome’s Aventine hill into the 5th-century Santa Sabina basilica for a late-afternoon Mass.

Neither the priests nor the faithful wore face masks, but Rome has largely been spared the virus as Italy’s national case count grew to more than 440.

Other Catholic countries took Ash Wednesday precautions. In the Philippines — Asia’s only majority Roman Catholic country — priests sprinkled ashes on the heads of the faithful rather than making the mark of the cross on their foreheads to avoid physical contact.

“Wherever the ash is placed, on the forehead or on the head, the feeling is the same, it’s uplifting,” Editha Lorenzo, a 49-year-old mother of two wearing a face mask, told The Associated Press in Manila.

At the Vatican, Francis held his general audience as usual in St Peter’s Square and offered prayers to people sickened by the virus and the medical personnel treating them.

In the crowd of thousands, a handful had masks on their faces.

“I want to again express my closeness to those suffering from the coronavirus and the health care workers who are treating them, as well as the civil authorities and all those who are working to help patients and stop the contagion,” Francis said.

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