Lockdown tests faith in virus-hit Philippines
Catholic faithful wearing face shields attend a mass at the usually packed Baclaran church in Paranaque City, suburban Manila on October 9, 2020. After months of livestreaming mass to millions of faithful from behind closed doors, churches in the Catholic-majority Philippines are beginning to reopen.
AFP/Ted Aljibe

Lockdown tests faith in virus-hit Philippines

Ron Lopez (Agence France-Presse) - October 11, 2020 - 9:20am

MANILA, Philippines — After months of livestreaming mass to millions of faithful from behind closed doors, churches in the Catholic-majority Philippines are beginning to reopen.

But strict coronavirus rules mean worship is still far from normal, and the contagion spreading across the deeply religious country has forced churches to get creative to meet the spiritual needs of their congregations.

In the usually packed Baclaran Church in the capital Manila — which has the highest number of infections in the archipelago — temperature guns, hand sanitizer, contact-tracing forms and uniformed security guards greet the faithful wearing masks and plastic face shields.

Social distancing rules limit three people to pews that normally sit 10 and every second bench is left empty in the cavernous church where thousands of worshippers once flocked for mass.

Face coverings must be worn at all times — even when believers take the piece of bread given to them during the Holy Communion by a priest or minister who is not exempt from the protocols.

Holy water fonts — into which people used to dip their fingers to make the sign of the cross — are dry and covered with a white cloth. 

Religious icons are in storage or behind fences to prevent people from touching and kissing them — a common practice believed to help cure the sick but that could now help spread COVID-19.

"It feels so strange," said Rachel Mendioro, who is eight-months pregnant with her first child and is praying for a safe delivery.

"Seeing few people (inside the church) gives you a different vibe. It really tells you that the world is facing a problem right now."

With churches in Manila limited to filling only 10 percent of their seating capacity and many still fearful of infection, online mass remains popular.

Services livestreamed on the Baclaran Church's Facebook page receive as many as 50,000 views — a five-fold increase from before the pandemic.

Elsewhere in the country, drive-by communion services have been introduced and some priests are visiting the homes of their congregants to hear confession.

Forced to worship at home since March, when the country began a months-long lockdown, Rederacion Parina said she wept when she recently returned to Baclaran for the first time.

The 77-year-old walked the six kilometres (nearly four miles) from her home instead of taking public transport to save money for food. 

She prayed for help to resolve her financial woes — increasingly aggravated by virus measures crippling the Philippine economy.

"My body is gaining strength when I go out (to visit the church)... I feel calm," said Parina, lifting her face shield to wipe away tears.

"When I'm stuck at home... I feel like I'm nearing my end."  

Rethinking faith

Other churches have opted to hold their services entirely online until the health crisis eases.

Teejay Bagasbas, 51, and her family may have to wait until next year before they can attend a service at the conservative International Churches of Christ. 

For now, they sit in their courtyard and watch the livestreamed version, taking communion using pre-packaged bread and grape juice made by local company Holy Cup, which has reported a three-fold increase in sales during the outbreak.

"If there is something good that is brought about by the pandemic (it) is that the church was brought into each other's homes," Bagasbas said.

But virtual worshipping is not for everyone.

"A lot of people... feel the connection is not as intense or not as real," said Victorino Cueto, rector at the Baclaran Church. 

The virus offers a new perspective on how people can practise their faith and the church should be quick to adapt to it, said Cueto. 

"Covid has shaken all of us and faith is not immune from the whole process," he said.

"Every crisis is an opportunity so I think the pandemic is asking us to reimagine what our faith is now."

As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: March 3, 2021 - 4:06pm

Other regions and provinces in the Philippines considered moderate and low-risk areas will be placed under general community quarantine starting May 1. Bookmark this page for updates. (Main image by The STAR/Edd Gumban)

March 3, 2021 - 4:06pm

The Department of Health reports an additional 1,783 COVID-19 cases in the country, bringing the national tally to 582,223, of which 35,056 are active cases.

The country's death toll is at 12,389 with 20 new fatalities, while the total of survivors is at 534,778 with 330 more recoveries.

March 1, 2021 - 4:04pm

As the Philippines starts its vaccination program, the Department of Health logs 2,037 more COVID-19 cases, pushing the national caseload to 578,381. 

The DOH also reports 86 more recoveries and 4 additional fatalities, bringing the total of survivors to 534,351 and the death toll to 12,322, respectively.

Active cases in the country are at 31,708.

February 27, 2021 - 4:25pm

The Department of Health logs an additional 2,921 COVID-19 infections, the highest this year. This brings the total number of COVID-19 cases in the Philippines to 574,247.

February 27, 2021 - 9:41am

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque says Metro Manila will remain under general community quarantine.

February 26, 2021 - 4:04pm

The Philippines records the highest rise in daily cases since October with 2,651 new COVID-19 cases, pushing the national tally to 571,327.

The country's death toll is at 12,247 with 46 more fatalities while the total of survivors is at 524,582 with 561 additional recoveries.

Active cases in the country are at 34,498.

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