MANILA — As Filipino Catholics mark the beginning of Lent with the observance of Ash Wednesday, more traditional practices have returned after years of tweaked rituals to arrest the spread of COVID-19.
At the Manila Cathedral, Archbishop Jose Cardinal Advincula led the Holy Mass with the imposition of ashes.
In his homily, the cardinal reminded the faithful that the ashes should be a reminder of the vulnerabilities of human mortality.
"Pinapaalala ng mga abo sa atin na lahat tayo ay mamamatay din pagdating ng takdang panahon," Advincula said.
[The ashes remind us that we will all pass away at our appointed time.]
"And before the length of history and the breadth of the universe, we are just tiny grains of dust."
While challenging the faithful to pray, fast, and do acts of charity, the cardinal also urged the people to disengage from clinging to "transitional temporalities of the world."
"The things of this world are good but they are like ashes and dust. The more we grasp them, the more they slip off our hold," he said.
The practice of imposing ashes on the faithful's forehead was restricted since the pandemic struck in 2020.
During that time, both the Vatican's liturgical office and the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) issued detailed instructions pertaining to the conduct of liturgical practices that will risk the transmission of the virus.
In the Philippines, churches opted for the sprinkling of ashes on the head. This practice was less familiar among Filipinos but is more common in other countries, like Italy.
This year no such guidelines were issued.
CBCP President and Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David said they are leaving it to local bishops to decide whether there is still a need for special protocols with the observance of Ash Wednesday and other rituals during Lent.
In the Archdiocese of Manila, parishes and other communities under its jurisdiction were instructed to revert to the more usual practice of imposing ashes on the forehead.
The archdiocese also clarified that the imposition of ashes is always done in the context of a liturgical celebration.
Many churches in other archdioceses and dioceses in the country have also reverted to imposing ashes on the forehead.
For Catholics, Ash Wednesday signals the beginning of Lent. Marked with intense prayer and penance, this period traditionally witnesses numerous religious activities usually attended by large crowds.
These events were put on hold during the height of the pandemic to avoid the spread of the virus.
But since late 2022, the Philippines has transitioned to more relaxed protocols in dealing with COVID-19.
Travel regulations have eased, wearing face masks is no longer mandatory in many areas, and various religious activities with massive numbers of attendees are now allowed.
The day before Ash Wednesday, many churches also held the ritual of the burning of old palm fronds amid a gathered crowd.
The palm fronds were used in the previous year's Palm Sunday. The ashes then were used for Ash Wednesday observance.
Various churches have also announced their respective schedule of Stations of the Cross — a Catholic meditation on the scenes during the passion and death of Jesus Christ. While some congregations do this with a small number of attendees inside the vicinity of the church, there are also those who do this along the town and city streets and are usually attended by a large number of people.
Processions also have started to reappear after restrictions were implemented during the height of the pandemic.
Some Filipino bishops have also released instructions to encourage the public to do away from attending the Holy Mass through live streaming, which became the alternative when COVID-19 transmissions reached an alarming rate.
In the Diocese of Malolos, although its cathedral still regularly streams liturgies through its Facebook and Youtube channel, a message reminding people of the importance of physically attending the Holy Mass in the church has been included.
Meanwhile, while large public gatherings are now allowed in the Philippines and many other countries amid declining numbers of COVID-19 infections, the World Health Organization announced that the pandemic remains a public health emergency of international concern.