"We must move forward in courage and hope."
In the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan, relief workers from the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation visited the roofless Santo Nino Church in Tacloban City to offer help in rebuilding the church. It was truly an unexpected gesture for people of another faith. Deeply moved by their generosity, then parish priest Msgr. Alex Opiniano inquired of the reason behind their donation. They have seen the faith of the people, they explained, and they realized how important the church was to them.
Such an opportune moment that on Pentecost this year, many churches in different parts of the country began to open up for “masses with the people”. For weeks since the COVID-19 pandemic began, masses in predominantly Catholic Philippines have been celebrated “sine populo”, that is “without the people”. Although many of these liturgies have been livestreamed via the internet or broadcast through television, many of the Catholic faithful have not received the Eucharist during Holy Week and Easter, the most solemn season of the church calendar.
But despite being separated from each other during this period of community quarantine, Catholics and other Christians found a new way of living and expressing their faith—through family prayer and livestreamed liturgies. While many of our church buildings were locked and empty—prayers were even broadcast on loud speakers, transforming homes into—as what the Church calls—domestic churches.
Opening the churches did not happen without controversy. Calls for the government to allow churches resume began to increase with the shift from ECQ to GCQ measures. The government flip-flopped at least once in its decision to allow religious gatherings, but despite the obvious disappointment, the Church patiently complied with government regulations. The bishops of Metro Manila in fact asked their faithful to observe the quarantine measures calling such actions “an act of charity”. But heeding the call of Pope Francis, it likewise encouraged the clergy to not be remised in their pastoral duties, both in prayer and acts of charity.
As the churches were emptied, clergy and lay Catholics went to into the communities to bring relief to those stranded in their homes, and those who lost their jobs. Caritas Manila distributed relief bags and hygiene kits, as did several other dioceses throughout the country. They mobilized relief operations, medical clinics and even cash-for-work programs. Many parishes and religious congregations have opened their schools and churches to house the homeless and the medical frontliners.
There are critics, though, who think, the Church could have done more. In a way, I agree with them. The crisis of these past weeks have caused the world to stand still and significantly changed our familiar way of life. In fact, the challenge applies not only to churches, but schools, hospitals as well as governments should do more to make our families safer and prevent the further spread of COVID-19. But more than the relief services, people of faith would agree that the greatest contribution that the Catholic Church as well as other churches have made during this difficult crisis are their efforts of pastoral accompaniment, bringing the faith into our home, comforting us with their prayers for protection and assuring us with the confidence of hope that, this too, shall pass.
The painful restrictions that the Church has imposed on itself have not been made lightly, but these are consistent with its long-held realization that faith, service and science are not exclusive of each other. In fact, the most important early sets of public health guidelines for quarantine were compiled by Cardinal Girolamo Gastaldi in the seventeenth century, outlining public health measures considered to be the most effective at the time for containing contagion.
At the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis, envisioned the Church as a “field hospital after a battle”—with the “ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful.” A seeming premonition to what was bound to happen during this COVID-19 pandemic. The pope himself has taken advantage of modern media especially the internet, to show his nearness to the faithful, even broadcasting his daily masses, and portraying himself as the “world’s parish priest”—inviting the whole world into his own private chapel.
In the 50 days that followed after Easter, Mary and the apostles were in the Upper Room, spending their time in prayer and reflection—in a period of spiritual quarantine, fearful perhaps of persecution from the Jews, or possibly puzzled by the miracles of the resurrection. There they remained until when the Holy Spirit came down upon them in forms of tongues of fire.
Pentecost this year marks a similar time of rebirth for today’s Church. From the isolation of the past weeks, our churches will open once more, even more confident of God’s enduring faithfulness that has stayed true even in the faith of illness and death. The COVID-19 virus will still be there, but we move forward in hope that now and in the future, as it was in the past, we are not alone.
Faith, science and service. So we must move forward in courage and hope. We must move on with the comfort of faith. We must listen to sound medical guidelines and verified scientific facts, and not give in to confusion and “alternative truths”. We are called to obedience and cooperation with our duly constituted civil authorities. We continue to be inspired by the compassion of the people who have risked their lives and health to save others. In a post-COVID-19 world, we are asked to be examples of Christ’s saving love—in our words and actions.
Come Holy Spirit, and renew the face of the earth!