TACLOBAN CITY–The dreaded coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) did not stop the devoted Catholics in attending the traditional Ash Wednesday to signal the start of the 40-day Lent season in Eastern Visayas on February 26.
“I am good with the traditional. So long as we don’t have confirmed cases (of COVID-19), life as we know it shouldn’t be needlessly disrupted,” said Liza Baoy, a mother and government worker in Leyte.
The region, with a population of 4.4 million, has remained free from the dreaded virus that already infected 80,423 and killed 2,711 people mostly in mainland China where the disease originated.
No local transmission of the disease was also reported elsewhere in the country.
As the virus continues to spread worldwide, Philippine health officials earlier recommended the practice of good hygiene and the halting of big public gathering.
The directive also prompted the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) to issue an advisory, suggesting its clergymen to sprinkle dry ashes on the head of the mass goers instead of applying wet ashes on their foreheads to prevent the spread of the virus.
“This is not an innovation but in accord with the ancient practice of the Church,” said CBCP president Romulo Valles.
The advisory also urged the Catholic faithful to refrain from touching or kissing the cross for veneration during the Lent season.
However, Fr. Chris Arthur Militante, spokesperson of Palo Archdiocese in Leyte, said they “will stick with tradition imposition of ashes in the forehead” amid the virus scare.
“The Archbishop (John Du) specifically instructs that we follow the usual rite of the imposition of ashes, that is, on the forehead, for your guidance,” read the statement from the chancellor’s office.
“A true faithful in Jesus Christ should never get swayed nor scared by a ‘scare,’” said local resident Fidelino Josol.
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” added Josol, quoting a biblical passage.
He also reminded that the early Christians never faltered of Nero’s threat of being “thrown into the lions, burned at stake, crucified and many more, with no chance of getting away.
“The ashes symbolizing our faith should never scare us. I am in full support of the Archdiocesan position. I am aware that precautions are taken,” Josol said.
He said that his children will also follow the traditional Ash Wednesday, saying “our faith will prevail.”
Amid the advisory issued by Valles, Fr. Mark Ivo Velasquez of Palo Archdiocese maintained that the CBCP “has left it to the decision of the individual bishops in their respective dioceses, as is proper.”
“In their dioceses the bishop has the final say in matters pertaining to such matters, and not the CBCP,” Velasquez who will led in the traditional Ash Wednesday to over 12, 000 Catholics in his parish in Alangalang, Leyte.
However, for Leila Diaz, a physician in Tacloban City, she said she will not submit herself to the traditional practice.
“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,” the doctor said.
“Actually the sprinkling is also an ancient practice more popular in Europe than in our country. If you look at Pope John Paul II before, he administered it by sprinkling. In this matter it really is no big deal which practice one uses or prefers,” said Fr. Roy Cimagala of Cebu City, adding that they in Cebu will do the sprinkling during the Ash Wednesday rites.
After declaring it as a global health emergency, the World Health Organization also warned all government leaders to prepare for a possible coronavirus pandemic.