Catholics Mark Ash Wednesday

MANILA, Philippines - The 40-day Lenten season begins on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, considered as a universal day of fasting, abstinence, prayer, self-denial, and repentance.

In keeping with an old religious tradition, priests in violet vestments, the color of penance, will mark the foreheads of the faithful with a cross using the ashes of burnt palm fronds from last year's Palm Sunday observance with a gentle reminder: ''Remember man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return'' (Genesis 3:19) or with a challenge: ''Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel'' (Mark 1:15). The faithful traditionally retain the ashes on their foreheads until sundown as a sign of humility and complete surrender to God.

Gospel reflections taken from Mark 6:1-6, 16-18 will focus on Jesus' warning against hypocrisy as well as His teachings on alms-giving, works of piety and charity, praying, and fasting which, He said, must be done ''not for others to see, but in secret, so that the Father who sees in secret will give His just reward.''

On Wednesday and on Good Friday, Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59, except for the sick, are permitted to consume only one full meal, which may be supplemented by two smaller meals, which together should not exceed the full meal. Those who are 14-years-old and above are also required to abstain from meat on Wednesday and on all Fridays for the duration of the the Lenten season.

''The three pillars of Jewish piety - almsgiving, prayer, and fasting-sum up the challenge of Lent in the word ASH,'' said Balanga (Bataan) Bishop Ruperto C. Santos. ''A is for almsgiving as we feel compassion for our less fortunate brothers and sisters. S is for sacrifice that underlies fasting as we deprive ourselves of human pleasure and comfort. H is for holiness that is nurtured by prayer. To be holy is to be in communion with Jesus and to make Him the center of our life,'' he said.

Church officials encourage the faithful to take the Sacrament of Penance, to go to confession for spiritual cleansing in preparation for the celebration of Christ's Resurrection on Easter Sunday.