In Singapore, Ash Wednesday is do-it-yourself amid coronavirus

SINGAPORE – Wearing his earpods and clothed in office attire, 29-year-old overseas Filipino worker Karlo Martinez walked into a Catholic parish, approached a small desk by the entrance, got a few small packets from a basket, and briskly walked away.

It was almost 5 pm, and Martinez was among many Catholics in Singapore who passed by the Church of the Sacred Heart that sunny afternoon of Wednesday, February 26. One by one, they picked up small plastic packets containing what would seem odd for non-Catholics: ashes.

The Church of the Sacred Heart was one of at least 3 parishes in Singapore that distributed blessed ashes to Catholics on this day.

Using these ashes, Catholics can trace a small cross on their own foreheads reciting a traditional formula – "Repent and believe in the Gospel" – while watching Mass on YouTube.

Why the ashes? In the Catholic Church, February 26 was Ash Wednesday, when Catholics usually have their foreheads marked with ashes to symbolize repentance from sin, and to begin the 40-day penitential season of Lent.

But Ash Wednesday this year was different in Singapore. Catholics usually observe this ritual by attending Mass and having priests or lay ministers mark their foreheads with ashes. This year, the imposition of ashes would have to be "do-it-yourself."

This is because for the first time, public Masses and other big Catholic gatherings here remain suspended by the archbishop himself, William Goh, to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus disease called COVID-19.

Singapore has at least 90 cases of COVID-19, prompting Goh to suspend Masses for an indefinite period starting February 15. Catholic Masses have also been suspended in South Korea and Hong Kong, where COVID-19 has been spreading as well. (READ: Coronavirus fears disrupt Ash Wednesday for Asian Catholics)

In the Philippines, to minimize physical contact, bishops have recommended sprinkling ashes on Catholics' heads, instead of marking foreheads.

"It's the first time this happened here in Singapore," Martinez said in Filipino, referring to the suspension of public Masses here. He said the "spirit" of attending Mass in person is different, but he understands the archbishop's decision for the safety of all.

For now, Martinez makes do with watching Masses on TV or YouTube.

In fact he was rushing home on Wednesday because he needed to catch the 7:30 pm Mass led by Goh, which was to be livestreamed on the Archdiocese of Singapore's YouTube channel. He planned to watch the Mass with 3 to 5 other Filipino friends.

BLESSED ASHES. Catholics in Singapore take these plastic packets of ashes to mark their own foreheads on Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020, as public Masses remain suspended in the city-state due to COVID-19. Photo by Paterno Esmaquel II/Rappler

BLESSED ASHES. Catholics in Singapore take these plastic packets of ashes to mark their own foreheads on Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020, as public Masses remain suspended in the city-state due to COVID-19.

Photo by Paterno Esmaquel II/Rappler

Sense of loss, emptiness

Like many Catholics here, Martinez feels sad that he cannot receive communion, or the round white wafers that Catholics believe to be the real body of Christ, in an actual Mass. He appreciates it however that Singapore's Catholic Church "makes a way" to make the spirit of the Mass still alive, even online.

Sherann Tang, a resident of Singapore, also said she feels "very, very sad" that Masses remain suspended as Lent begins.

"There's definitely a sense of loss. I am not quite sure what to do. It's Ash Wednesday, it's the first day of Lent, I want to be able to celebrate in church, but I'm not able to because of the situation," Tang said.

The suspension of Masses is a deeply emotional issue for Catholics here. Many of the faithful in Singapore, a Chinese majority country, are converts who take their faith more seriously than cradle Catholics.

Monsignor Philip Heng, rector of Singapore's Catholic cathedral, recounted in a bulletin how a female young professional called him and "cried her heart out when she heard of the suspension of Masses." Heng himself admitted that the suspension of Masses in Singapore is unprecedented.

But Tang said the distribution of ashes at the Church of the Sacred Heart is a "great" initiative. "I think it's good so that we'll still feel that we're doing something for Ash Wednesday. We're not just at home and not doing anything. I think that it's good that we get to anoint each other with the ashes."

Like Martinez, Tang was planning to watch the 7:30 pm livestreamed Mass led by Goh, in her case with her husband.

"We pray for the Lord's protection over the country, over our people, the Lord's protection over the medical staff and the health workers, and for this virus to be contained and to be managed and that things will get better and we can all go back to church," Tang said.

Frances Wong, a mother of two, shared the sense of "emptiness" by many Catholics here after Goh decided to suspend public Masses.

"Obviously we felt emptiness, but we respect it and we know that it's for the better good of everyone," said Wong.

Wong, who has been relying on TV Masses for the past two weeks, planned to watch Goh's Ash Wednesday Mass together with 5 family members. This way, she said, they can observe the beginning of Lent as closely as possible to "how we've always done Ash Wednesday."

The Catholics who passed by church to get packets of ashes had a common prayer on Ash Wednesday: that COVID-19 would soon go away.

They all long for health – not only of the body, but also of the soul.

"Hopefully we'll have Mass very soon," Wong said, as she also rushed back home to catch the 7:30 pm Mass on YouTube. – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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