Pope celebrates Ash Wednesday at Vatican as Masses in Italy canceled over coronavirus fears

Pope Francis is celebrating Ash Wednesday as usual — even though other Masses in Italy were canceled due to fears of the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

In St. Peter’s Square, the leader of the Catholic Church held his general audience Wednesday as thousands of people gathered with face masks to protect against COVID-19.

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“I wish, again, to express my closeness to those who are ill with coronavirus and to health-care workers who are caring for them,” the pope said.

Pope Francis gives his speech during the general audience as faithful wear masks in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.

Pope Francis gives his speech during the general audience as faithful wear masks in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Francis prayed for the thousands of victims of the virus affected globally, which includes 300 in Italy, and the medical personnel treating them, before he looped through the square in his popemobile, shaking hands with pilgrims in the front row and kissing at least one baby.

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Later in the day, Francis will celebrate an Ash Wednesday Mass at a Rome church, marking the start of Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and prayer leading up to Holy Week and Easter.

The patriarchate of Venice canceled the service at St. Mark’s Basilica, after a cluster of elderly people tested positive for the virus. The region is home to the second-largest outbreak in Italy.

Catholics wear protective masks during Ash Wednesday rites Feb. 26, 2020 in Paranaque, metropolitan Manila, Philippines. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Catholics wear protective masks during Ash Wednesday rites Feb. 26, 2020 in Paranaque, metropolitan Manila, Philippines. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

In the Philippines, Asia’s only majority Roman Catholic country, priests avoided physical contact by sprinkling ashes on the heads of the faith instead of making the mark of the cross on their foreheads.

“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.

“It’s better to be cautious,” said churchgoer Evet Accion.

Catholic nuns sprinkle ash on the head of devotees during Ash Wednesday rites Feb. 26, 2020 in Paranaque, metropolitan Manila, Philippines. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Catholic nuns sprinkle ash on the head of devotees during Ash Wednesday rites Feb. 26, 2020 in Paranaque, metropolitan Manila, Philippines. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Bishops in the Philippines have already started suggesting churchgoers refrain from kissing or touching the cross on Good Friday, April 10.

“Instead, the faithful are requested to genuflect or make a profound bow as they venerate the cross,” Archbishop Romulo Valles, who heads the bishops’ conference, said.

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Last month, the Filipino bishops recommended Catholics receive the Eucharist host by hand instead of mouth and avoid holding hands in prayer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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