Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Filipino Catholics mark the Holy Week in isolation, but with a deeper faith

MANILA – A church in Manila that houses a 400-year-old statue of the “Black Nazarene” used to draw millions of devotees in Holy Week but this year, it was shut; anyone trying to kneel at its gates was chased away.

Whenever a small group congregated, men with bullhorns suddenly emerged: “Disperse! The church is closed! We’re on lockdown! Stay in your homes!”

At a shrine in Antipolo city, 21km east of Manila, the surrounding streets would be surrounded with about a million weary, penitent pilgrims on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday in years past.

The shrine and its grounds were empty this week, the space occupied mostly by pigeons and monuments.

At least 220 have died in the Philippines from Covid-19 since the first case was reported here on Jan 30. Health officials have tallied over 4,000 infections and expect numbers to spike as they aim to test at least 10,000 a day from next week.

Celebration of Holy Week in the Philippines – the most sacred public holiday in this mostly Catholic nation of over 100 million – has been muted and sombre, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread and a sweeping lockdown over nearly the entire country forces everyone to stay put.

Gone were the week-long prayer recitals, mock crucifixions, evening processions and Good Friday pilgrimages to churches and shrines.

Priests were preaching to empty pews while streaming their sermons on Facebook and YouTube.

A village in Pampanga province that attracts tens of thousands of tourists and pilgrims to witness mock crucifixions on Good Friday has shut its borders. Police are deployed to keep outsiders away.

In past years, Mr Ruben Enaje, 59, a house and billboard painter, had himself nailed to a wooden cross at exactly 3pm on Good Friday (April 10) as the climax of a street play that depicts Christ’s last hours.

This year, there was no cast and no spectators. He just walked by himself, from his house to a hill, carrying a 37kg wooden cross.

Across the country, priests stood on truck beds and motorised rickshaws to be driven through their parishes, blessing people who knelt along streets.

It was a “drive-by blessing”, one parishioner, barred from going to church, remarked.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, meanwhile, created a website that let Catholics fulfil their yearly vow to visit 14 churches on Good Friday to mark the stages of Christ’s crucifixion and death without leaving their homes.

The site provided links to 360-degree views of 14 churches across the Philippines and a playlist of prayers on the music sharing site Spotify.

A priest celebrated mass inside a church where photos of his parishioners were taped on the pews.

But the absence of religious pomp and pageantry has not diminished the Catholic faith. The celebration has been private and more personal, but also more profound.

“Our faith has deepened. We are not letting our fear conquer us,” Fr Rufino Macasaet, 40, a priest at a big shrine in Baclaran district, just south of Manila, told The Straits Times.


A shrine in Baclaran district, just south of Manila, is nearly empty. PHOTO: CRISTINA MENINA FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

He said it has helped that the church has been able to reach out to its flock despite the lockdown through social media.

“We’re opening up a new horizon in our faith,” he said.

Fr Macasaet has himself celebrated masses without anyone in attendance, just a mobile phone beaming his sermons to anyone logged on to the shrine’s Facebook page.

“It was disconcerting at first. But then I actually found it more engaging. When I review the video, I can see how people reacted in the comments section,” he said.

Mr Fernando Silva, 67, communications head at the Antipolo shrine, said the livestreams are even reaching a wider audience now as families with nowhere to go are huddled inside their homes.

“They’re now watching together, as one, as a family,” he said.

Like most Catholics, he believes the pandemic is just a test of his faith, and the church is rising to the challenge.

“It is strengthening our faith, especially now that our lives are in danger, and we don’t know if the virus would come for us next. For now, we can only turn to God for salvation,” he said.

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