Coronavirus: Holy Week celebrations muted in the Philippines

A church in Manila that houses a 400-year-old statue of the Black Nazarene – a sculpture of a dark-skinned Jesus Christ – used to draw millions of devotees during Holy Week. But this year, it was shut, and anyone trying to kneel at its gates was chased away.

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

At a shrine in Antipolo, a city 21km east of Manila, the surrounding streets would be filled 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 filled mostly by pigeons and monuments.

At least 220 people have died in the Philippines from Covid-19 since the country’s first case was reported 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.

The Holy Week holidays in the Philippines are the most sacred in this largely Roman Catholic nation of over 100 million. But this year, the celebrations have been muted and sombre, as the coronavirus pandemic continues and a lockdown over nearly the entire country forces everyone to stay home.

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 its mock crucifixions on Good Friday has shut its borders, with police 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 as the climax of a street play that depicted Christ’s last hours.

This year, Mr Enaje 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 in the 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 allowing Catholics to fulfil their yearly vow to visit 14 churches on Good Friday to mark the stages of Christ’s crucifixion and death – without having to leave their homes.

The site provided links to 360-degree views of 14 churches in 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 to the pews.

But the absence of religious pomp and pageantry has not diminished believers’ faith. The celebrations have been private and more personal, but also more profound.

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

He said it has helped that the church has been able to reach out to its flock through social media despite the lockdown. “We’re opening up a new horizon in our faith.”

Father Macasaet has celebrated masses without anyone in attendance, just a mobile phone beaming his sermons to people logging in 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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