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The saga of religious services in the time of COVID-19

The saga of religious services in the time of COVID-19

The community quarantine is slowly easing up but some sectors are still not happy with the IATF’s recommendation as it left some vital institutions to remain “under control” in the General Community Quarantine (GCQ) protocols.

People who have been deprived of physical participation in the celebration of the holy eucharist or the Mass are disappointed because it has been almost three months since they were barred from doing so.

Masses, of course, continue to be celebrated but without the presence of the faithful. The digital platform proved to be of great help in bringing the holy eucharist at the doorsteps of Catholic families but many feel that this is still not enough and that the actual participation and reception of holy communion are still the most effective ways to receive Christ specially in this time of crisis.

What made it more disappointing for many Catholics is the IATF’s decision to allow shopping malls to operate despite knowing fully well that these are frequented by people at any time of the day compared to churches whose services are scheduled and regimented.

Despite assurances from the Catholic church that it is more than ready to implement health protocols to ensure the safety of parishioners, the IATF remained unmoved and decided to still not allow religious services to be publicly celebrated.  The least it could allow is to limit the attendees to a maximum of five (5) in the Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ) and ten (10) in the General Community Quarantine (GCQ).

This moved Bishop Broderick Pabillo, the Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Manila, to go public and lambast the decision as “unreasonable” for it is after all tantamount to still not allowing the people to join the Eucharistic celebrations. 

Reeling perhaps from the public rebuke of the good Bishop, the National Task Force (NTF) against Covid-19 decided to reach-out to Bishop Pabillo and invited him to a meeting on May 18. The Bishop told me to attend in his behalf with two other priests from the Archdiocese of Manila.

A Technical Working Group (TWG) was created composed of the AFP, PNP, DILG, DOH, TESDA, DOLE and the Religious Sector from the Archdiocese of Manila.

During the meeting held at the AFP Commissioned Officers Clubhouse at Camp Aguinaldo, I specifically suggested, at the behest of Bp. Pabillo, to consider religious services as essential needs; to allow ALL religious services in MECQ, and veering away from the IATF’s decision about the number of attendees, I insisted on physical distancing as the basis for accommodating church-goers during the mass. The 50% calculation of allowed attendees by the IATF is quite complicated because we could not agree on where it should be based. Is it on the actual size of the church or the pews?

Surprisingly, the members of the TWG adopted the suggestions giving rise to our optimism that anytime from May 18, Catholics will finally be able to physically attend our church services.

To further underscore the Archdiocese of Manila’s commitment to bring back the public celebration of liturgies in churches, we submitted to the TWG the Guidelines for Religious Services which elicited guffaws from some members as it is stricter in scope and strategy. The DOH representative commented that PPEs are really for hospital use and that priests may not wear them as it is enough that they only wear face masks and practice physical distancing while performing their ministry.

Despite all these though, the IATF is still not convinced that people will be safe in the church.

In a text message, the Secretary of the Department of Justice told Bp. Pabillo that the IATF had a vigorous discussion about religious services yesterday afternoon (Friday, May 29) but the body could not arrive at a favorable decision and decided to discuss it further on Monday, June 1 in their regular meeting. If there is any consolation, the SOJ also said that since NCR is now under GCQ, parishes can now open but should only accommodate ten (10) attendees for their scheduled masses not including mass servers.

It would have been a fitting gift to the church had the IATF allowed the public celebration of the Eucharist this coming Sunday as it is the Solemnity of Pentecost, the “birthday” of the Church.

When the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and the first believers, they constitutively mark the birth of the early Christian community whose faith is centered on Jesus (Acts 2:1-31). It was a well-spring of faith and people coming from different places and who spoke different languages were gathered in worship and prayer professing their faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

How beautiful it would have been if our celebration tomorrow is allowed with the maximum participation of the faithful. It would have been a sight to behold having people go out of their houses and gather in one roof to express their confidence and faith in Jesus believing that this crisis will soon be over because of Him, who is our savior.

This is not meant to be for now. The IATF doesn’t see religious services as essential to the people. The decision reflects how we value material things more than the spiritual. Jesus has a reminder fo that, “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his life in the end” (Mark 8:36).

The Church has already prepared for the so-called ‘’new normal’’. It has adapted its way of doing things according to prevailing circumstances. The presence of technology proved to be an advantage in its mission. For all the innovations and creativity though, the experience of being a ‘’church’’ much like that of the first Pentecost is crucial. We need to experience that physical oneness once again. We should not be contented with the virtual unity that was necessitated because of COVID-19.

Anyway, we have at our disposal some practical strategies to ward-off the virus. Spiritual instruments are available to us too. Why don’t we take full advantage of them? Still afraid? And Jesus said, “Take courage. It is I. Do not be afraid” (Mt. 14:27).