VATICAN CITY - The Vatican was going ahead with plans for Pope Francis to celebrate the Ash Wednesday ritual kicking off the Catholic Church's Lenten season, but elsewhere in Italy Masses were canceled over fears of the coronavirus and other Catholic countries took 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 sent his prayers to victims of the virus and the medical personnel treating them. A handful of the thousands of people gathered wore face masks to protect against the virus, which originated in China and has infected thousands globally including more than 300 people in Italy.
Francis kissed at least one child as he looped through the square in his popemobile and made a point to shake hands with the faithful sitting in the front row. Usually, he only waves. He also greeted prelates with a handshake at the beginning and end of the gathering, but it appeared most clergy were refraining from kissing Francis' ring or embracing him, as they normally would do.
"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.
Later in the day, Francis is to celebrate an Ash Wednesday Mass at a Rome church, a procession and ritual that begins the 40-day Lenten period of fasting and penance in the run-up to Holy Week and Easter.
Already the patriarchate of Venice canceled the Ash Wednesday Mass scheduled for St. Mark's Basilica, after a handful of elderly people in the lagoon city tested positive for the virus. The surrounding Veneto region is home to the second main cluster of cases in Italy.
In the Philippines, the Rev. Victorino Cueto, rector of the popular National Shrine of our Mother of Perpetual Help in the Manila metropolis, said the practice of sprinkling ash on heads of devotees was a precaution to prevent the spread of infections but actually is an old tradition based on the Old Testament.
"It's better to be cautious," said churchgoer Evet Accion.
On Good Friday, which marks Christ's death on the cross, bishops in the Philippines strongly suggested that churchgoers refrain from kissing or touching the cross, a common practice among Catholics. "Instead, the faithful are requested to genuflect or make a profound bow as they venerate the cross," said Archbishop Romulo Valles, who heads the bishops' conference.
Last month, the bishops recommended that Catholics receive the Eucharistic host by the hand instead of the mouth and avoid holding hands in prayer during Masses as precautions amid the viral scare.