Filipino Catholic devotees emerge from quarantine to receive blessings from a priest on Palm Sunday on April 5, 2020 in Quezon City, Metro Manila. Jes Aznar/New York Times
Deaths, meltdowns, valor
Ever since the coronavirus spread to the Philippines early last year, sparking prolonged and painful lockdowns, FOCAP journalists have scoured the treacherous front lines of the pandemic to chronicle its cataclysmic impact in the country—from the menacing rise in infections and deaths to the crippling economic downturn.
Wearing their N95 masks, face shields and, at times, hazmat suits, they filed grim dispatches and harrowing images from hospitals, quarantine centers, morgues and other COVID-19 hotspots.
They also told stories of valor and hope.
Empty Chapels, but Filled with Hopes
By Joe Torres, LiCAS News
Asia’s bastion of Catholicism on the edge as pandemic empties churches in the Philippines
Churches were empty, nothing was in collection baskets, even coins. Priests were appealing for donations, nuns were baking cookies to raise funds, and Catholic schools were turning football fields into vegetable gardens.
If there’s one institution most affected by the global coronavirus pandemic, it’s the Catholic Church. The health crisis, which prohibited mass gatherings, threatened to bankrupt the centuries-old institution and changed the conduct of its liturgical celebrations.
In the Philippines, church leaders admitted that the early days of the lockdown had a “tremendous” impact on parishes and on the finances of churches, resulting in cuts in salaries of church workers and in the closure of Catholic schools, leaving hundreds of teachers jobless.
Dioceses had to dip into funds intended for other projects, like the maintenance of cemeteries, to help those most in need. A priest in the northern Philippines noted that without incoming funds, parishes had to “rely on God’s providence.”
“Like the rest of the people and the faithful, we rely on the providence of God, and He is never failing us,” said Father Melvin Castro of the Diocese of Tarlac. He was happy to announce, however, that parishes were able to help the “poorer members” of the community.
The pandemic was not “just a medical, social, and economic problem, but also a pastoral problem,” noted the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need. The use of the Internet and new media as tools for evangelization has become more pronounced as parishes and dioceses held “virtual” religious services.
Even the Vatican had to adapt to the “new normal.” Pope Francis delivered an “Urbi et Orbi” blessing (literally “to the city [of Rome] and to the world”), which is normally reserved for Christmas and Easter, during the height of the coronavirus outbreak in March. The pontiff also celebrated Masses and led prayers online.
The pandemic also became an opportunity, nay, a blessing, for the Church — the people of God — to be true to its mission to be with and to serve the least, and search for the lost, in society.
Catholics were challenged to be “real witnesses” to their faith by caring for their neighbors as an “important and fundamental duty” of being church members.
“Let us be willing to support our neighbors, especially those in the peripheries who only depend on the generosity of fellow believers,” read a statement from the Council of the Laity of the Philippines in May.
Pope Francis said it well when he noted that with the sorrow and pain brought about by the pandemic, the only way to survive was by sticking together and living the moment “with compassion and hope.”
Pope Francis also said the pandemic has become a timely reminder for Christians to be humble “because too often we forget” that there are dark times in life as well.
“Solidarity with others, especially those who suffer,” seemed to have become the mantra of the Catholic Church during the health crisis.
Many might still find the “institutional Church” wanting in its response to issues like poverty and human rights abuses, which seemed to have worsened during the pandemic.
But there were also individuals and institutions who, against all odds, went out to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and cried for justice.
Divine Word missionary priest Flaviano Villanueva fed and sheltered street dwellers in Manila after protesting the “inhuman treatment” they suffered from authorities.
Father Eduardo “Ponpon” Vasquez, OMI, visited urban poor communities wearing a hazmat suit to hold religious services and deliver much-needed food.
Claretian missionary priest Eduardo “Educ” Apungan distributed relief goods to tricycle drivers and sheltered health workers and “frontliners” in the basement of his church. Redemptorist Brother Ciriaco Santiago braved the wind and rain to bring food and construction materials to communities devastated by natural calamities.
All over the country, dioceses and parishes, priests, nuns, and the religious, cooked food, distributed fish and vegetables, baked bread, and provided counseling in communities.
The initiatives and the “works of mercy” of the Catholic faithful that even the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, which is often critical of the Church, praised the efforts.
The Gospel of John tells the story of the “miracle of the five loaves and two fish.” Jesus supposedly fed 5,000 people from the five loaves and two fish given to him by a boy.
The coronavirus pandemic gave the Church an opportunity to perform and witness “miracles” when the multitude in urban poor communities, in evacuation centers, and in the streets, received loaves of bread and banyeras of fish.