Filipino Catholics flocked to churches to observe Ash Wednesday, with priests and nuns daubing foreheads with ashes for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Most COVID-19 restrictions were scrapped this week after a sharp drop in infections and increased vaccinations, allowing churches to pack their pews and physical contact to resume.
Devotees wearing masks began lining up outside Baclaran Church in Manila before dawn to receive the ash on their foreheads — a ritual that signals the beginning of Lent.
Churches have in the past two years sprinkled it on people’s head due to anti-COVID measures.
“I feel like I am in heaven,” said Lydia Smith, 76, outside the church where several thousand of the faithful stood in long queues waiting their turn.
“I am really happy even if it’s very crowded. It’s like the joy of the church has returned,” she said.
The Philippines is overwhelmingly Catholic, with some 80 percent of its people said to be believers.
Since early 2020 most devotees have been forced to follow church services online and major religious festivals have been curtailed or cancelled due to strict social-distancing rules.
But Tuesday marked the beginning of the “new normal” in the national capital region and 38 other areas.
Most restrictions have been removed, allowing places of worship, restaurants and public transport to operate at full capacity.
Local church officials gave the green light for the “imposition of ashes on the forehead” to resume on Wednesday, but sprinkling the powdery residue in hair was still allowed.
“One of the tragedies of COVID-19 is it separated us,” said Father Victorino Cueto, rector of Baclaran Church.
“When we put the ash on the forehead, it means that we are really reaching out to one another, in faith and in love,” he said.
Hotel safety officer Radito Mendoza, 62, welcomed the resumption of the tradition.
“I’m so happy that we are slowly going back to normal and those who want to go to church are now able to do so,” he said.
In guidelines released last week, the Episcopal Commission on Liturgy of the Philippine bishops’ conference said priests were allowed to put ashes on the foreheads of churchgoers.
“We will revert to the imposition of ashes on the forehead of the faithful,” read part of the guidelines for the Lenten observance issued by Bishop Victor Bendico, head of the commission.
On Tuesday, the national capital and 38 other areas in the country were placed under Alert Level 1 or what the government considers as the “new normal.”
Under Alert Level 1, establishments and public transportation are allowed to be fully operational.
There are also no restrictions in place on the movement of people from different age groups, though this is subject to specific rules that may vary among local government units.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, however, reminded the public that although the government wanted to usher in a “new normal,” the pandemic is not yet over.
“We are keeping our safeguards so that we still have those protections in case we will see an increase in cases again because the virus is still circulating among us,” she said in a media briefing on Monday.
Church leaders, meanwhile, assured that they will “abide by the stringent policy of the government on social distancing and the use of face masks during church services” in the Lenten season.
“We continue to sanitize our churches every after liturgical celebrations and provide alcohol for the sanitation of our faithful,” added the statement.
Religious processions during the Holy Week will also be coordinated with local government and village officials, it added.
The bishops also assured to “take great care not to give an opportunity for our faithful to congregate outside their homes.”
Ash Wednesday signifies the start of the Lenten season which is usually marked with fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. – with a report from Agence France Presse