The Good News amid the Bad: Philippine Churches Resume Normal Masses

Fr Leonard E Dollentas

Metro Manila on the island of Luzon, Philippines, has eased into the “new normal” starting March, owing to lower cases. The Philippines’ Department of Health records that 65,171,415, or 72.41 %, of the target population has already been fully vaccinated. Churches in the Metro Manila area in Luzon were among those allowed to open under the Inter-Agency Task Force’s new modified guidelines to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Hence, Catholic churches in the Philippines adjusted to a “new normal” as most churches reopened after a strict community quarantine was lifted in parts of the country.

Relief pervades the Philippine faithful

Churchgoers and the faithful, in this predominantly Catholic country, are not only elated by this development but almost blissful after a long period of online masses and live-streamed religious services. Parish priests welcomed once again their parishioners but encouraged them to follow the Task Force’s guidelines. The modified general community quarantine means movement is allowed to return to normal, but mask-wearing, physical distancing and other health protocols are enforced. Fr. Jeff Manlapig of Holy Eucharist parish in the Diocese of Parañaque said: “While this is a general guideline for all under ‘alert level 1’ (the new normal), some churches, like ours, still follow basic health protocols like wearing face masks, social distancing, and personal as well as communal hygiene and sanitation.” As of March 2022, the Philippines has 3,674,983 coronavirus cases and 58,281 deaths according to  Worldometer data, and some parts of the country remain under the stricter enhanced community quarantine. “As of the moment, cases have gone drastically down from February onwards. It was very bad last January due to the Omicron variant. But the country began to move forward from last part of February to early March,” Fr Jeff observed.

 Some semblance of normality

Another parish priest from the nearby Diocese of Pasig jokingly reported that his parish has accumulated such a huge number of pending marriages, baptisms, first communion and confirmations, that every day he has been performing almost four sacraments. “We miss our parishioners, especially the kids and the older people,” said the parish priest. “The kids, who are not allowed to go out, are a great part of our church. No catechism class yet and no Sunday gathering for children in most churches yet.” Under the modified quarantine guidelines, children under 21 and seniors 60 and older are to remain in their homes.

An air of hope amidst the daunting “new normal”

In most Philippine dioceses, it was reported that parish priests and community leaders worked together to ensure that safety guidelines were met. This gives churchgoers an assurance of a Covid-safe environment. Markings were placed outside and inside the church, and pews were rearranged; only two persons will occupy a pew at a 1.5-meter distance. Instructions and reminders are posted on walls, and movement is organized in bringing offerings to the altar. In an online interview, a parishioner from an urban parish within the Manila area said: “We can’t do anything about the new normal. It is what the present situation requires, hence it is incumbent of us to comply with the protocols for everybody’s safety.”

A Macau parishioner, who recently left for good to move to the Philippines, observed that things looked and felt different in his home parish. “They are stricter. Everyone wore a mask, and those who entered the church were ushered directly to a thermal scanner and hand sanitizer inside the church. In some churches there are hand-washing disinfectant corners provided outside for the parishioners,” she said online. While another parishioner lamented, “I felt the lack of personal touch because of physical distancing. It is really different (than it was) during the old times. “I feel glad to see everyone again in face-to-face Masses after just watching things through the internet. Things are more difficult than before, but I believe and pray that this, too, shall pass,” she concluded.

(Photo credit: Fr. Jeff Manlapig -Holy Eucharist Parish, Parañaque City)