Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and symbolically done through the imposition of the ashes in the form of a cross on the foreheads of the faithful. In the Baclaran shrine, the ashes are distributed by the nuns and seminarians and although there are thousands of people everything is very orderly.
This was not always so.
The first time I encountered the distribution of ashes in the Shrine there were no lines of people, no nuns and no seminarians. Instead there was a massive crowd of people with only one interest and that was to receive the Ashes. And they wanted to do this as soon as possible. In the center was the priest who was being jostled from side to side as each person pushed against the ones near him to speed them up.
The priest was not only distributing ashes but he would also have to return to the church to help give Communions when the time arrived and was also expected to hear confessions when his schedule came due. At some time in the day he would also have to say a Mass and give one or two Novenas. There were of course a number of priests but they were very few compared to the number of people.
Some priests would get behind a low fence at the back of the sacristy and operate from there. This had the advantage of keeping the people in front of you at least, but succeeded in blocking the pathway of people coming out from the church and wanting to go home. Also parts of the fence had barbed wire on the top which meant that the priest had to be alert at all times, something which was almost impossible as the day progressed. Also the Philippine sun always shone brightly on Ash Wednesday, so that by evening the Fathers would be all colors from pink to dark crimson depending on where they had been stationed.
It was only during the late 70s that people thought of allowing nuns and eventually seminarians to distribute the ashes. In those days we had very few seminarians so we had to invite those of other orders, this resulted in a display of nuns from different Congregations as well as seminarians wearing the traditional habits of their order. While being very colorful, the heat of the day and the heavy clothing often resulted in exhausted and sometimes irritable ash distributors.
Thanks to Vatican II and the new understanding of Liturgical requirements things have improved. And now we can see people lining up to receive the Ashes. We see seminarians in neat barong and nuns in cooler habits distributing the ashes, and most of the time they are under the shade of trees.
Best of all, thanks be to God, many of the nuns are our day to day Mission helpers and the seminarians are from our own seminary.
John Maguire, CSsR
Here is the schedule Ash Wednesday at the shrine.