MANILA, Philippines – Videos of how to make their own palaspas or palm fronds circulated in Catholic social media circles, while families prepared their makeshift altars and priests readied their laptops and webcams.
It was once unimaginable in predominantly Catholic Philippines, but, here we are.
For the first time in the nearly 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines, millions of Filipino Catholics began Holy Week on Palm Sunday, April 5, in virtual churches online.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the Catholic Church in Luzon and other parts of the country to suspend Masses and cancel Holy Week rituals, such as the waving of palm fronds on Palm Sunday, the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday, and the processions of Good Friday.
Instead, Catholic priests – including the Pope himself – have opted to livestream their Holy Week services without the physical presence of their flock.
This move aimed to minimize physical contact and stop the spread of the novel coronavirus that has hit more than 3,000 people and killed at least 144 in the Philippines alone as of Saturday, April 4.
Over a million cases of coronavirus infections have been recorded worldwide, and deaths have surpassed 50,000 on Thursday, April 2.
Pope Francis himself acknowledged that the world is observing Holy Week this year “in a truly unusual way.”
Francis however reminded Catholics to stay true to the spirit of Holy Week as the world battles a pandemic.
“Let us try, if we can, to make the best use of this time. Let us be generous. Let us help those in need in our neighborhood. Let us look out for the loneliest people, perhaps by telephone or social networks,” said the Pope.
He added, “Even if we are isolated, thought and spirit can go far with the creativity of love. This is what we need today: the creativity of love.”
‘Is there still Holy Week?’
The temporary head of the Archdiocese of Manila, Bishop Broderick Pabillo, asked in a Holy Week message: Stripped of all traditions, “is there still a Holy Week?”
Pabillo pointed out that external practices help Catholics experience their faith in concrete ways, “but there is also the danger that we identify our religion only with these practices.”
“Due to the virus, we are challenged this year to live this most holy week without the traditional external trappings. There is still the Holy Week but we celebrate it differently, and hopefully, more deeply,” the bishop said.
One suggestion he made is to read all the 4 Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – this Holy Week as Filipinos remain in quarantine.
“It would be refreshing, and revealing, to take time – and we have the time – to read the gospels from end to end, and so follow the flow of the life of Jesus as narrated by the different Evangelists. It would be rewarding to read all the 4 Gospels during this week,” Pabillo said.
‘Homes turned into tombs’
Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, vice president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), said that Catholics this Holy Week “will surely be weeping” in a figurative sense.
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“We will be missing the palms of Palm Sunday, the Jesus images mounted on carriages for the procession, the senakulo, the Salubong. We will be feeling like it’s not Holy Week, like Jesus is not with us,” David said in a recent homily.
David added: “For the past few weeks now, our homes have turned into virtual tombs during this time of our quarantine. Our streets have turned empty, no public transportation, business establishments are closed, our voices have been silenced. We have been shrouded by fear, bound, as it were, by the terror and anxiety of getting sick with the coronavirus, or causing our loved ones to get sick, especially our elderly and the vulnerable ones among us.”
The bishop however encouraged Catholics not to lose hope in the time of COVID-19.
David said that Jesus remains.
“He is here, in our frontliners who put their lives on the line, in the doctors and nurses and all other caregivers, in the soldiers and barangay officials who patrol our streets, in the volunteers who bring food to the hungry, in those who dare to open their doors to the frontliners and the homeless, those who continue to produce food and make it available in the markets, in the stores, those who dare to be out there so that we could be allowed to stay home and defeat this unseen enemy,” the bishop said.
He ended his homily stressing, “Our faith teaches us to believe that our stories will have a happy ending.”
“And so we must have the courage to declare with hope: We are Christians. We believe in happy endings. If it’s not yet happy, then it’s not yet the end.” – Rappler.com