Thousands of Filipinos flocked to churches to observe Ash Wednesday, with Catholic priests and nuns daubing their foreheads with a cross 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 cross on their foreheads – a ritual that signals the beginning of Lent.
Churches have in the past two years sprinkled it in people’s hair due to anti-COVID measures.
“I feel like I am in heaven,” Lydia Smith, 76, told AFP 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.”
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, the 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.”
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.
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