‘Communion of souls’ through technology in Philippines

Illness and death, anguish and anger are not the only legacies of the novel coronavirus contagion in the Philippines.

Lapsed Catholics riding out the pandemic in their homes have found renewed faith and are fueling a resurgence in “communion of souls,” said Bishop Gerardo Alminaza.

The prelate oversees the Diocese of San Carlos, a mixed urban-rural community in the central Philippine province of Negros Oriental.

In the congested urban poor communities in the country’s capital, the efficiency honed by Basic Ecclesial Communities or BECs has won belated appreciation from local government units struggling to control the spread of the virus.

Love offerings in cash and in kind continue to pour into the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help of the Redemptorist congregation in Manila’s Baclaran district.

The religious order operates a massive kitchen that serves hundreds of frontline workers in hospitals, the homeless on the streets, and the poor in their shanties.

The Philippine government has already eased quarantine protocols and allowed the resumption church services under stringent physical distancing rules.

The new guidelines slashed the number of Mass attendees to half the normal church capacity in areas deemed as “low risk,” and even lower in the still dangerous national capital region.

Redemptorist priest Mhel Dacillo, social communications director of the shrine in Baclaran, said the new rules mean that what used to be a 5,000 to 7,000 crowd per Mass in the church has been reduced to 70.

A church worker manages the online broadcast of Good Friday celebrations in the Diocese of Cubao in the Philippine capital amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

Access to the icon of the Our Mother of Perpetual Help remains 24/7, although curfew bans people from traveling.

“Our social media use has always been a strong part of our mission and there you can feel their devotion, with some online novenas followed by between 24,000 and 48,000 Filipinos,” said the priest.

“A nation that loves Mary will find a way,” he said, citing new partnerships with the Catholic station TV Maria and the growing number of requests for “cross posting” from parishes across the country.

Bishop Alminaza said the lockdown due to the pandemic forced the clergy to finally dive into social media.

“In our diocese, a [pre-pandemic] survey showed some 70 percent of parishioners have access to digital platforms,” he said. “We are maximizing that reach.”

The prelate said the quarantine has instilled in him an appreciation for the wealth of teachings and homilies in the Church.

He said he keeps tabs on the homilies of Pope Francis, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan, and priests across the country.

“I listen to all of them, and as a bishop, I am nourished and inspired,” he said.

But Bishop Alminaza also noticed a dramatic change in attitude among Catholics.

“We have seen a transition from apathy to enthusiastic engagement, especially with the expansion of our social media mission,” he said.

With no recourse to work and lifestyle distractions, and with an array of Masses, homilies, and retreats, Filipino Catholics have been seeking comfort from Church’s digital offerings, church radio, television, and cable stations.

The bishop said that what started as “a captive audience, with no choice because of the lockdown” has transformed into a big group of people who participate daily in the Holy Eucharist.

“They used to surf for homilies to see what they like. Somewhere along the way, they became daily Mass-goers,” said the bishop.

A family participates in an online celebration of the Holy Eucharist on Easter Sunday in Quezon City. (Photo by Jire Carreon)

But more than just listening, Filipinos now seek innovative ways “to intimately participate in the communion of souls,” he said.

In some areas, basic ecclesial communities, church groups, and even “lapsed Catholics” agree to hear Mass at the same time.

Afterwards, they stay on to share lessons in keeping bodies, minds, and souls healthy under quarantine, or just to comfort each other amid losses and economic hardships.

“People used to just go home after Mass. Now, they listen as we read their short messages, and they send additional questions based on the homilies, which we then answer,” said the bishop.

“It has enriched the Church, right where we need it most, in love for each other,” he said.

‘Soul of the Church’

In the Diocese of Novaliches in the outskirts of Manila, young people are holding online versions of summer Bible schools, and the “sharing” has shown a maturity in a generation defined by the pandemic, said Father Luciano Felloni, an Argentine priest who has made the Philippines his home in the last 26 years.

The priest praised the strength of residents in Christ the King Parish who braved scores of killings under the government’s so-called “war against drugs” and now face dislocation of jobs and livelihood, and the sometimes brutal enforcement of quarantine measures.

“Where many died from [drug-related killings], many are also falling victim to COVID-19,” said Father Felloni, who described the local economy in the parish as still vibrant amid the lockdown.

The parish encompasses portions of two sprawling villages with about 70,000 residents and some of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in Quezon City.

He said that in other parishes, priests have found ways to hold online funeral services, allowing families scattered across the metropolis, even outside the country, to come together “in sorrow and in hope.”

“We cannot stop togetherness,” said Father Felloni. “This is the soul of the church,” he said Felloni.

A worker sprays disinfectant inside a Catholic church in the Philippine capital in preparation for the possible resumption of public celebrations of religious activities in the Philippines. (Photo by Jire Carreon)

He said the challenge is not new to the Church. “Amid past historical challenges, the Church established universities and hospitals,” said the priest.

Quarantine rules has prompted parishes to use digital apps in fund-raising.

“People want to help but they do not want to risk their health going to banks or coming to us, so we are now using at least two local digital apps and some international platforms,” said Father Felloni.

He said, however, that it is “on-ground knowledge” born of organizing that is showing the strength of the Church.

“Where the [basic ecclesial communities] are strong, your on-ground service is also strong, and that helps to keep people in their homes,” said the priest.

Local government units have even turned to the Church for lists of social aid recipients.

The Church is trusted, its ecclesial communities operate in contained areas where leaders know who are the poorest among residents, the single mothers, and senior citizens, because they have served them for years.

Bishop Alminaza said the Filipino clergy now have to move on to ensure that the poor in a country of 110 million people are not left out of the blessings of technology.

“My daily challenge is to pay greater attention to the poor,” said the prelate.

“Our perspective is usually from the middle or upper middle class. We must look at the challenges and the solutions from the perspective of the lower economic classes,” he said.

“We’re moving forward with digital services, there’s no turning back,” said the bishop.

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