Pope observes usual Ash Wednesday customs in time of virus

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Catholic devotees have ash sprinkled on their heads during Ash Wednesday rites Feb. 26, 2020 in Paranaque, metropolitan Manila, Philippines. The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines has recommended sprinkling ash on the head of devotees instead of using it to mark foreheads with a cross to avoid physical contact and fight the spread of the new coronavirus in the Lenten period in places of worship. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis celebrated the Ash Wednesday ritual that marks the opening of the Catholic Church's Lenten season in traditional fashion while greeting the public in Rome as other Masses were canceled in northern Italy over fears of the coronavirus outbreak.

Francis and a long line of priests, bishops and cardinals walked in a procession through Rome's Aventine hill into the 5th-century Santa Sabina basilica for a late-afternoon Mass. Neither the priests nor the faithful wore face masks, but Rome has largely been spared the virus as Italy's national case count grew to more than 440.

Other Catholic countries took Ash Wednesday 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 offered prayers to people sickened by the virus and the medical personnel treating them. In the crowd of thousands, a handful had masks on their faces.

"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.

Francis kissed at least one child as he looped through the square in his popemobile and made a point of shaking 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.

In his remarks, he urged the faithful to put down their cellphones during Lent and pick up the Bible instead.