The virtual tourist

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

As in Holy Weeks past, I accompanied my mother to this year’s Visita Iglesia.

Because of the community quarantine, of course, the church visits and Stations of the Cross had to be done virtually. It was the first time in my entire adult life that I spent Maundy Thursday to Black Saturday at home.

On Thursday, I took my mother on a virtual world tour, beginning in the place where it all started: the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built on the spot believed to be where Jesus Christ was born. Then on to the Garden of Olives where Jesus prayed before riding on a donkey (or pony?) into Jerusalem, with his followers greeting him with palm fronds.

The excellent video shows virtual visitors the spots where Pontius Pilate was believed to have ordered Christ lashed. And then on to the Via Dolorosa, believed to be the path where Christ carried the cross to Calvary, and finally to the Church of the Sepulcher in Jerusalem, said to be built on the site of the Crucifixion, Golgotha. The last stop was the Stone of Anointing or Unction, where the body of Christ was laid and prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea.

My mother’s global Visita Iglesia ended in the seat of the faith, St. Peter’s Basilica in coronavirus-hit Rome.

In between she virtually visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, currently bearing the brunt of the coronavirus disease 2019 Apocalypse; two places of pilgrimage due to miracles – the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal and Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City; Sacre-Coeur Basilica in Paris, and the Cathedral of Cologne in Germany.

She also breezed through some of the other grandest churches in the world: the still unfinished Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona, in COVID-devastated Spain, and the fire-gutted Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris.

On Good Friday we went local, starting with the Baroque churches of Paoay in Ilocos Norte and San Agustin in Manila, which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Then on to the cathedral of Daraga, Albay – one of seven churches suggested for virtual tours by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines. Next were the Our Lady of the Abandoned church in Sta. Ana, Manila; the exquisite St. James the Apostle church in Betis, Pampanga; Minor Basilica of the Sto. Niño in Cebu; St. Gregory the Great church in Majayjay, Laguna; St. Sebastian Cathedral in Lipa, Batangas, and San Pedro Cathedral in Davao City. (Hmm… yes, that’s nine, not seven churches.)

The clergy might want to upgrade the online information about the churches. Except for only a handful of churches, the online videos were mainly personal travel materials, with private individuals who were taking selfies or groupies often the focus rather than the churches. The bishops can use as models the video materials on the Israel church tour and St. Peter’s Basilica.

*      *      *

Developing information materials for virtual church visits, and upgrading capabilities for live-streaming masses should be among the offshoots of this unprecedented quarantine. Even if we manage to flatten the curve and COVID-19 is contained, no one can rule out a relapse. The Church may want to prepare for protracted physical distancing.

Billionaire Bill Gates, who predicted a pandemic like this five years ago as the Ebola virus was spreading across several African countries, said an unknown virus is likely to keep popping up approximately every 20 years. The Church should be ready with facilities for virtual ministry.

The actual crucifixions of penitents in Pampanga were scrapped, but some flagellants continued their devotion. In Metro Manila, epicenter of the COVID-19 contagion in the country, there were no processions of the dead Christ. Instead, churches such as the St. Joseph Parish church in Las Piñas, home of the bamboo organ, live-streamed prayers showing statues of the dead Christ and Mother Mary.

“Do not be afraid,” a bishop intoned in a high mass live-streamed on Black Saturday evening. “God will find a way when there is no way.” The pandemic, he stressed, could not suppress the hope and joy of Easter.

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In the time of quarantines and lockdowns, of course, even virtual tourism is a luxury for millions in our country with no smart phones or access to the internet.

And in these dark days full of sorrow, the 21st century plague has stolen from many the joy even from Easter Sunday. Instead of resurrection, we thought of illness and death.

Handed a lemon by cruel fate, we follow the advice to make lemonade. In quarantine, we broaden our minds by catching up on our reading and watching interesting documentaries in between the binge-watching of fictional streamed movies and TV shows.

Instead of Easter egg hunts yesterday, families shared egg pie and made leche flan. Still, it was a struggle to strike a hopeful note on Easter. Those who have not lost loved ones to COVID-19 have lost jobs and livelihoods, and the future remains bleak and uncertain. The tourism industry has been nuked, in what is supposed to be the country’s peak travel season.

Yesterday I was told that one of my uncles, a sweet and funny 84-year-old, had died in New York City, leaving my maternal aunt, also an octogenarian, alone in their home. My uncle’s body is still being tested for COVID-19, and so are my aunt and her children who live separately.

With over 20,600 dead of COVID-19 across the United States as of yesterday, this is a tough time to die in that country, especially in the epicenter of the US contagion, crowded New York. I hope my uncle at least gets a proper funeral and burial.

One day, hopefully sooner than later, everyone can go out of their homes again, including children and the elderly, enjoying the sun and virus-free air.

One day we can stroll in the parks and malls again. We can mingle with humanity without looking at each other with suspicion that everyone is a potentially lethal germ carrier.

One day we can be real tourists again.

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