Online Masses, drive-by blessings kick off Philippines’ Holy Week observance

Online Masses and drive-by blessing of palms kicked off what could have been a colorful observance of the Holy Week in predominantly Catholic Philippines.

Filipinos stayed home on Palm Sunday, April 5, attending Mass online and waiting for priests to pass by houses to bless palm fronds.

In many villages across the country, people stood outside their homes, waving palm fronds, as priests on board pick-up trucks and motorized tricycles passed by to give the blessing.

This year, there was no blessing and distribution of palm branches in open spaces to recall the entry and welcome of Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has earlier urged the faithful to stay home during the Holy Week and follow church activities online or on television.

The Philippine government has implemented a 30-day “enhanced community quarantine,” which is set to end on Easter Sunday, to contain the spread of the new coronavirus disease.

Authorities, however, are eyeing a two-week extension of the lockdown to ensure the success of the quarantine.

Chance to reflect

Bishop Broderick Pabillo, apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Manila, said the Holy Week observance will be different this year.

He said, however, that it is “a chance for us to go in the essence of what we are doing.”

“It is good to pause and see how is the Lord coming to us during these days,” he said in his homily during the Palm Sunday celebration at the Manila Cathedral.

“Now that we cannot do the externalities, we can dig deeper on the meaning of what we do,” he said.

The Manila bishop urged the faithful “to seek the meaning of our faith and not the externalities.”

“Let us use this silence and inactivity of this lockdown this Holy Week to reflect and pray,” he said.

Bishop Broderick Pabillo, apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Manila, officiates Palm Sunday Mass for online streaming inside the Manila Cathedral on April 5. Social gatherings including Masses have been suspended due to the “enhanced community quarantine” imposed by the government to address the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Mike Alquinto)

He noted that with the four weeks of lockdown, “there are complaints, not only of inconvenience or boredom but because of great need.”

“There are people who are starving. Let us join all these sufferings to that to Jesus,” he said. 

Bishop Honesto Ongtioco of Cubao said the new coronavirus disease has spread “fear, sadness, and mourning, but yet it has brought out many heroes, who will go out to serve for the sake of others.”  He said the pandemic “is not a judgment from God but an opportunity for us to consider what is lasting, what is real and important in life.”

Bishop Ongtioco said Palm Sunday is a reminder that “only God can give us true security and protection.”

He said the narrative of Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem “teaches us how to find life.”

“All of us have a mission and to fulfill that mission we must be obedient,” he said as he urged the public to treasure the “lessons we learned” during the quarantine.

Less dependent on rituals

Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of San Carloe said this year’s Palm Sunday celebration is a challenge “to make all our celebrations deeply personal and spiritual.”

He said the “extraordinary times” teach us to be “less dependent on external rituals and on the priests.”

“We are invited to be more focused on the Church of the Home, just like the beginning. Focus on the essentials and what truly matters,” he said.

The bishop urged the people to stay faithful because “even if we don’t get to choose our difficulties … we do have the freedom to select our responses.”

Bishop Prudencio Andaya of Tabuk said Palm Sunday speaks about “the obedience of Jesus to the will” of God the Father and “reminds us of our obedience in the mission to save lives.”

“In the context of the pandemic that we are facing now, this mission becomes more relevant as we battle against the deadly virus,” he said.

He urged the public to make sacrifices by obeying the protocols advised by health authorities “so we can do our part to save lives.”

He said that if staying at home would save more lives “then we need to uphold that kind of obedience as followers of Jesus.”

“Obedience to act in the service of God and others. Obedience that enables us to sacrifice our time, effort and talents that others may live,” he added.

Carmelite priest Gilbert Billena blesses palm fronds as he walks around an urban poor community in the outskirts of the Philippine capital on April 5, Palm Sunday. (Photo by Jire Carreon)

Father Aris Sison, parish priest of St. John Paul II in Quezon City, admitted that celebrating Mass in an empty church is a challenge.

“It’s difficult to lead a Mass while facing a cellphone and a lone altar boy,” said the priest.

Meaning of Palm Sunday

In the central Philippine island of Boracay, Father Palermo Suganob warned of “myths” that village people continue to entertain about Holy Week rituals.

He urged villagers not to use the palm fronds blessed on Palm Sunday as “vitamins or treatment against the coronavirus.”

In many Filipino communities, people hang the palms alongside religious images or keep them in their Bibles or devotionals.

But Josefa Dolinog, a teacher, said through the years her family has been use the palm fronds to heal the sick by burning it with incense and placing it near a patient.

“This has been the practiced of our elders,” she said.

Alviola Freddie Alejado from the town of Numancia said the same practice is being observed in her place.

Olive Ramos, a public-school teacher, said people use the palm fronds to shield them against “bad luck.”

“Palm Sunday is a rite to remind us of the Holy Week of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection,” said Father Suganob.

Palm Sunday also marks the first day of Holy Week, the last week of the Christian solemn season of Lent that precedes Easter.

It is a Christian moveable feast that falls on the Sunday before Easter and commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, an event mentioned in each of the four canonical Gospels.

Mark Saludes and Jun Aguirre contributed to this report.

Monsignor Pedro Quitorio III goes around the city of Borongan in the central Philippines on a motorized tricycle to bless palm fronds on April 5, Palm Sunday. (Photo by Alren Beronio)

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