MANILA--Holy Week is the high point of the Catholic Church’s liturgical life throughout the year, especially in the Philippines where local tradition and church rituals go side-by-side.
From the Visita Iglesia, where devotees hop from one church to another to pray, to extreme forms of penitential acts such as self-flaggelation and being nailed to the cross — the country's streets are usually teeming with people fulfilling their panata, or personal sacrifices.
But this year, it will be a lot different. As most areas are under lockdown or strict quarantine due to the threat of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Catholic Church is forced to proceed with rituals without the presence of the public.
For Rev. Fr. Aris Sison, parish priest of St. John Paul II Parish in Quezon City and former rector of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Cubao, it will not be easy but it is a sacrifice everyone must make
“It was very difficult for us priests, very very difficult. In fact most of us ended up in tears. It is very difficult for us not to be allowed to celebrate mass in public,” Sison said.
“Ang hirap. Ako I look forward to Holy Week kasi my favorite time of the year is Lent and the high point is Holy Week.”
The Vatican’s Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued a decree detailing guidelines on how churches across the world should conduct Holy Week rituals.
Included in the decree is the omission of the rite of the Washing of the Feet, traditionally done to commemorate a similar act by Jesus on the eve of His crucifixion.
“Sa akin ang very special ‘pag Holy Week ‘yung Holy Thurday, ‘yung Washing of the Feet kasi it is then that I feel I am doing something that Jesus Christ Himself particularly did and omitted this year ang Washing of the Feet,” Sison said.
“Ako ang iniisip ko this is one of our fasting, one of our sacrifices, one of the things that we are not able to do.”
Despite the challenges, the priest noted how the pandemic is bringing people back to their faith.
“Because people are not busy, people are at home, families have learned to pray together again . . . Nakakatuwa may gadget tapos may online mass, tapos may dalawang kandila tsaka may krus,” Sison added.
This is where technology is playing a big part in the Church’s efforts to continue its mission. The Vatican itself is encouraging local churches to livestream masses and other liturgical celebrations.
In fact, Pope Francis’ daily masses are livestreamed from the chapel in his residence at Domus Santa Marta.
“Families learned to pray together in their homes. Kami, ‘yun ang ine-encourage namin. Ngayon na kung dati walang time as a family, kung dati laging busy at ang daming excuse, now wala nang palusot. Siguro that’s the other side of it,” Sison said.
As of writing, the Philippines has more than 3,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with death toll at 144.
Since March 16, Luzon has been on lockdown, with government ordering people to stay at home and suspending public transport, school and work, except for basic services, in a bid to contain the virus.
Public masses are already suspended in most churches in the Philippines.
But the country’s bishops conference issued supplemental guidelines to “find the balance between the worthy celebration of the liturgy of the Rites of Holy Week and the call of our health and civil authorities to help stem the rapid transmission of the corona virus disease.”
For Palm Sunday, the faithful are encouraged to follow the liturgy through radio, television, or any online platform while still holding to their “palaspas.”
“The blessing of their palms or any leaf branches is imparted by the Scriptural Reading and Prayer of Blessing during the celebration. In their homes there is no need for holy water for the blessing of their palm branches,” according to CBCP’s circular.
For the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the CBCP said each priest may celebrate the mass alone, which “is due to the intrinsic connection between the priesthood and the Eucharist, the anniversaries of which are highlighted in the liturgical celebration of this evening.”
Good Friday liturgy usually includes the Veneration of the Cross. Adhering to the earlier decree from the Vatican, the CBCP reminded priests and the faithful that “the Presider alone will do the kissing in the Veneration of the Cross.”
Meanwhile, the Vatican also added a special intention for the sick and the dead during the Solemn Intercessions.
“This special intention would include those who are presently sick of COVID-19, those who have died because of this disease, as well as our doctors, nurses and other medical staff, health care workers, the frontliners in the food services and relief operations, those keeping peace and order, civil servants, and the poorest among our families who are greatly affected by this crisis,” the CBCP circular said.
For the Easter vigil, the CBCP said it is to be celebrated only in a cathedral and parish churches and should be held not earlier than 5 p.m.