With the wind howling outside the glass doors of the rectangular third-floor iron veranda of the parish and uneven rain clouds hovering over the city of Cebu, I scrounged for some consoling memories. My mind reached back to February 14 when about 60 street children and some parents had gathered in the parish for Valentine’s Day. They had given me a bouquet of multicolored paper flowers they themselves had made.
The parish outreach for street children, called AGAK (“Atong Gugma Alang sa Kabataan” or “Our Love for the Youth”) was a daily parish outreach started by my priest-predecessors. A stable group of volunteers and regular supporters had gravitated towards three single ladies who were in the parish daily: Lani, Farrah, and Leobe. Lani is a nurse who works with a lawyer. Farrah is in the corporate world. Leobe is a public elementary school teacher.
The outreach is now on its fourth year. Most street children actually have shelters that bear scant resemblance to a house. They would rather spend time in the streets. With the ECQ, the three ladies and other volunteers did weekly distribution of relief goods. Now, however, Sitio Tinabangay, where Farrah and Leobe live, is in lockdown due to a rising number of Covid positives.
Even before the lockdown, the trio also got involved in setting up the Adopt a Frontliner initiative of the parish. Parish volunteers, now numbering 50, commit to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet, the rosary with the Loreto Litany, the Gozos (“joys”) of San Roque, and two other prayers daily, including personal sacrifices, for five frontliners. They began their mission last April 8. Now 250 frontliners in both Manila and Cebu have their backs covered, in addition to wearing PPEs. A group of about eight prayer warriors come together daily, with appropriate social distancing, in a mini-plaza just outside the parish compound to sing the prayers. Their passion inspires.
ECQ is a time to reach out. It is also a time to reach into one’s self. Only God knows the personal struggles we all undergo during the ECQ, when Masses are without people and the sacramental life of the Church has been impeded, accompanied by copious tears of parishioners and clergy.
When the Apostolic Penitentiary published its decree on special indulgences last March 19, it touched upon something that the pandemic puts into relief: the question of death and how priests can minister to those afflicted by the virus. Suffering is compounded by the sense of physical, emotional, and spiritual isolation.
The value of such indulgences became apparent when a friend texted me about the need for extreme unction for his sibling who was dying from Covid-19. As I prepared myself mentally while inquiring about hospital protocols, I realized the letter had actually addressed those in such a situation when it says that “the Church pray for those who find themselves unable to receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and of the Viaticum, entrusting each and every one to divine Mercy by virtue of the communion of saints and granting the faithful a Plenary Indulgence on the point of death, provided they are duly disposed and have recited a few prayers during their lifetime…” The letter goes on to say that the Church “makes up for the three usual conditions required”. The latter include receiving the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.
I inquired from my friend if I could talk to the attending isolation-ward physician. Since experience tells me that the sense of hearing is often the last sense to go, I asked for an opportunity to “speak” to the comatose man through speaker phone. He acquiesced. I do not know how well my message was received by the dying man as I walked him through the five conditions for acquiring a plenary indulgence for which the Church had made some flexible provisions for the sake of mercy. Only God knows.
The same letter also states that “for the attainment of this indulgence the use of the crucifix or the cross is recommended (cf. Enchiridion indulgentiarum, no. 12). In this connection, several communities of the Salesians of Don Bosco in Cebu, led by Fr. Godo Atienza, have produced about 500 hand-held palochina crosses for distribution to those afflicted with Covid-19.
The ECQ has provided unexpected opportunities for service. Who would have imagined giving a Lenten recollection to four different groups in one day? Yet it happened. Within the third week of April, Mrs. Evelyn Nacario, who had helped organize an ecumenical network providing relief goods, invited San Roque Parish to help channel about 300 packs of relief goods that included fresh vegetables from a mountain barangay of Cebu City. Actual distribution occurred April 25, a happy partnership with the barangay, Caritas-Cebu which had contributed packed rice, the imPACT network of Evelyn, and the Cebu City Alliance Church. The spirit and work of the Year of Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue continues.
Meanwhile, the so-called creativity of love, as Pope Francis puts it, is alive in the activity center for street children behind the St. Joseph the Patriarch parish in Mabolo, Cebu City. Led by its indefatigable Executive Director, Fr. Pat Ornopia, the staff and volunteers continue to feed street children and other homeless people on a daily basis. In another effort, relief goods were also distributed last by a sister-group of the activity center to “Labangers” who are recovering drug dependents. The work was led by a determined Ms. Mathesa Lusica.
Amidst these uncertain times, the resilient faith of the People of God will see us through.
Meanwhile, we pray that the relief goods for our tres Marias and other parishioners will reach the intended beneficiaries.