Many Catholic churches across Asia were closed on Wednesday, Feb. 26, even as the Christian world marks the start of the observance of the Lenten season.
Fears of the possible spread of the dreaded novel coronavirus led church leaders across the region to suspend Ash Wednesday rituals and Masses.
Data from the World Health Organization as of Feb. 25 revealed that South Korea has at least 977 novel coronavirus cases while Singapore has 90.
The holding of Masses in South Korea have been suspended starting Feb. 26, Ash Wednesday, until March 10, affected at least 5.8 million Catholics.
Archbishop William Goh of Singapore has also announced the cancelation of public Masses for an indefinite period starting on Feb. 15.
The prelate said churches will remain closed “until there is greater clarity on the way forward.” Priests in the city-state, meanwhile, celebrate closed-door Masses that Catholics watch online.
In Hong Kong, where 81 people have been reported to have been afflicted by the virus and with two deaths, Masses have also been suspended.
There are nearly 400,000 Catholics in the Chinese autonomous region, many of whom are migrants from predominantly Catholic Philippines.
China and its territories have 77,780 coronavirus cases, including 2,666 deaths.
Archbishop Julian Leow Kim Bing of Malaysia offered prayers “for those who continue to put themselves in danger’s way” to tackle the virus.
In Indonesia, several churches in the capital Jakarta canceled Ash Wednesday Masses due to widespread flooding that was triggered by two tropical cyclones.
Philippine tradition continues
Even as Philippine church leaders issued a circular urging the sprinkling of ashes instead of imposing it on the forehead of the faithful, many churchgoers expressed preference for tradition.
“I would rather that ashes be imposed on my forehead rather than it be sprinkled on the crown of my head,” said Melissa Calderon of Quezon City.
“As long as we don’t have confirmed cases (of the virus), life as we know it shouldn’t be needlessly disrupted,” said Liza Baoy, a government worker in the Eastern Visayas region.
“A true faithful in Jesus Christ should never get swayed nor scared by a ‘scare,'” said Fidelino Josol from Leyte, a province in the Eastern Visayas region.
Leila Diaz, a physician in the city of Tacloban, said she prefers the sprinkling of ashes.
“Nowadays, it’s unwise to have the finger of another person touch your face, especially if that finger has touched hundreds of other foreheads or faces,” said the doctor.
A number of churches across the country decided to stick to the traditional way of imposing ashes despite the assurance of church leaders that the sprinkling of ashes on the crown of the head is “not an innovation but in accord with the ancient practice of the Church.”
Father Chris Arthur Militante, spokesman of Palo Archdiocese in the central Philippines, said the archdiocese “will stick to the traditional imposition of ashes.”
Confession by writing
In the Diocese of Kalookan, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, said the faithful may confess to a priest by writing their sins on a piece of paper to avoid close contact.
He said the piece of paper can be handed personally to the priest after uttering the introduction, “Bless me, Father for I have sinned.”
After “reading” the sins, the priest may ask the penitents some questions, give some admonition, recommend acts of penance, and give absolution verbally.
Bishop David said the priest will then give back the notes to the penitent for proper disposal afterwards.
During confessions, he said whether inside the confessional box or outside, both priests and penitents are advised to wear protective masks.
“Ideally, the penitent brings his or her own mask. Parishes should be ready to provide for those unable to bring their own,” said the bishop.
Important Catholic observance
Ash Wednesday is one of the most popular and important holy days in the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church.
The observance comes from the practice of placing ashes on the forehead as a reminder and celebration of human mortality, and as a sign of mourning and repentance to God.
The ashes used are typically gathered from the burning of the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.
Every year, church leaders remind the faithful that Lent is about the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
In his Lenten message this year, Pope Francis called for deeper dialogue with God through prayer, for renewed gratitude for God’s mercy and for increased compassion for people.
Pope Francis asked the faithful in his message to open their hearts “to hear God’s call to be reconciled to himself” this Lent and to heed the call of Christ to be “the salt of the earth and the light of the world.”