SAN JOSE -- On Ash Wednesday, some priests hit the road.

Father Michael Gazzingan, dressed in brown slacks, black shirt and a white collar, jumped into his small, hybrid SUV with a bicycle rack attached, and took off for a house in southeast San Jose. Ruppie Bautista opened the door and greeted him in Tagalog, the language of the Philippines, and then they switched effortlessly to English.

"I was born in 1926," Bautista said. "I ... am ... old"

She sat down on a small bench in the living room, in front of a spectacular altar filled with figurines of Catholic saints she had brought home from pilgrimages to Europe and Asia. Gazzingan put on a purple stole and read from a well-traveled copy of "Collectio Rituum," Latin for collected rites. He dipped his thumb into a dish of ashes -- burned palms from last year's Palm Sunday -- and pressed them gently onto her forehead in the shape of a cross.

"From dust you came, to dust you will go back again."

"Amen," Bautista responded.

Forty days

The ritual is common among Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists and Lutherans as a reminder and celebration of mortality. Ash Wednesday begins Lent, a liturgical period of prayer, fasting and abstinence leading up to Easter Sunday that asks Christians to emulate the 40 days Jesus is said to have fasted in the desert and resisted Satan's temptations.

Hundreds of "parochial vicars" like Gazzingan, and probably thousands more like him around the world, perform the ritual for Catholics who cannot make it to a church and stand in line. They are too old to drive, frail, disabled, injured or in hospice, preparing to die.


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Bautista lives at home with two renters, but she cannot drive anymore. Her parish, St. Maria Goretti in East San Jose, is one of the largest and most multicultural in Silicon Valley. Goretti has four vicars, one each for its Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese and English speaking groups. The parish brings to mind James Joyce's description of the Catholic Church: "Here comes everybody."

But when the disabled cannot come to church parochial vicars go to them at home, hospitals, nursing homes, wherever they are.

"It makes them feel they are still part of the church," Gazzingan said. At 37, he is a young priest in a rapidly aging American Catholic priesthood. "That's why we bring Jesus and the good news to them."

Bautista said receiving the ashes at home keeps her connected to the church and her faith.

"Being a devout Catholic, I must have the ashes," she said.

Bautista eagerly invited Gazzingan to stay for lunch, but the priest declined.

"We'll do it another time," he said. "More people to visit."

Bautista said she understood. "He's a son to me when he volunteers to come."

A big favorite

His next stop was a small, supervised group home for the elderly and disabled.

Doris Smith, a third-generation Fremont native who was born in 1933, suffers from poor eyesight and blood circulation in the legs. She sat up on her bed and ignored whatever she was watching on television.

"I had to sell my home because medical for me was kind of costly," she said.

Like Bautista, Smith has heard the Lenten prayers for most of her life and knew exactly when to respond with "Lord have mercy" and "Christ have mercy." She smiled after receiving her ashes.

"This means all and everything," she said and pointed to Gazzingan. "He's my favorite."

Leaving the room to perform the rite for other patients in the home, the priest told Smith he would pray for her.

"We all need prayers right now," she said. "The country, too!"

Felix Perez Marcial was the only resident of the group home able to walk into the living room for his ashes. A native of Puerto Rico and an Army veteran, he said he can't drive anymore and welcomed the ashes with a wry sense of humor.

"When you don't have transportation, you're grounded," he said. "At least they remember that I'm Catholic."

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767.