Ash Wednesday marks start of Lent for Christians

NEW YORK (WABC) -- Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, marking the start of the holy season for Catholics.

Ashes are being distributed at Saint Patrick's Cathedral throughout the day.

The ashes, which are made from palms burned on last year's Palm Sunday, symbolize repentance.

Pope Francis presided over the traditional "stational" liturgy for the beginning of Lent. Following an ancient custom revived by Pope St John XXIII, Pope Francis joined the faithful at the Church of Sant'Anselmo.

Francis and a long line of priests, bishops and cardinals processed through Rome's Aventine hill into the 5th-century Santa Sabina basilica for the late-afternoon Mass.

At the Vatican, Francis held his general audience as usual in St. Peter's Square and sent his prayers to victims of the coronavirus and the medical personnel treating them. A handful of the thousands of people gathered wore face masks to protect against the virus, which originated in China and has infected thousands globally including more than 300 people in Italy.

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

"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.

On Good Friday, which marks Christ's death on the cross, bishops in the Philippines strongly suggested that churchgoers refrain from kissing or touching the cross, a common practice among Catholics.

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

Last month, the bishops recommended that Catholics receive the Eucharistic host by the hand instead of the mouth and avoid holding hands in prayer during Masses as precautions amid the viral scare.

Lent will last for the next 46 days, but is observed for 40 as every Sunday is viewed as a celebration, leading up to Easter Sunday on April 12.

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