02/09/2005, 00.00
CHINA – HONG KONG
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When Ash Wednesday and New Year overlap . . .

Today is the first day of the new lunar year, a day of feasting, but also Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting and abstinence. Chinese dioceses try to cope with the faithful's contradictory needs.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews/UCAN) – This year, February 9 marks the start of both Lent and the new lunar year. Chinese dioceses have thus to cope with the needs of the Church solemnity and the traditions of the Lunar New Year as best they can.

In Chinese culture, ashes symbolically represent pain and suffering and many Chinese Catholics do not want to receive them today, a day of rejoicing. The Church has had to explain that the ashes are also a blessing.

Still, in China and throughout the Chinese-speaking world, Catholics have been dispensed from fasting and abstinence for 15 days until the end of New Year celebrations, whilst different dioceses have applied the dispensation to meet local needs.

In Shanghai, Fr Josef Bai Jianqing said that although Ash Wednesday Masses would be held as usual, Catholics unable to attend Mass because they are visiting relatives and friends, as tradition demands, can still receive ashes on February 10 and 11. Many however, in particular the elderly, will fast, Father Bai explained.

For Bishop Zhao Ziping, of the diocese of Jinan (Shandong province), the Lent and New Year are quite separate from one another. "The liturgy is one thing", said the 94-year-old prelate, "the New Year, another. We shall celebrate the liturgy on Ash Wednesday even if it overlaps with the first day of the year". And Bishop Zhao is convinced that many will still fast at home.

In Wenzhou diocese (Zhejiang province), an underground Church source confirmed that in many dioceses the faithful are dispensed from fasting and abstinence until the fifteenth day of Lunar New Year, which falls on February 23.

Even with a dispensation, older Catholics are very likely to fast and abstain so much so that priests must still reassure believers that it is 'not a sin' if this year they do not fast on Ash Wednesday.

In Tianjin, 90 kilometres south-east of Beijing, a Catholic woman said that thanks to the dispensation she will celebrate New Year as usual, cooking dishes with meat, prawns and chicken and sharing it with her family.

In Taiwan, Father Francis King Yu-wei, chancellor of the archdiocese of Taipei, said that the Bishops' Conference of Taiwan usually postpones distributing the ashes until after the New Year festivities. This year, he said, it is scheduled to take place on February 13, the first Sunday of Lent.

Meanwhile, the dioceses of Macau and Hong Kong have made similar arrangements. Ashes will be distributes on February 16 during Mass and on February 18 during the Stations of the Cross or at a suitable date other than a Sunday.

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