MANILA - "The Church has abandoned its flock when they need it the most."
This is the lament of an international Catholic priestly fraternity, the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), which has a priory in Quezon City.
Fr. Benoit Wailliez, a Belgian priest who currently heads the SSPX in the Philippines, said Tuesday it was "hurtful" to see the Filipino faithful being "left outside" by the Church amid the COVID-19 crisis.
"Everything is closed. And, for weeks, these people have been without Mass, without Sacraments. They can't go to confession, they cannot receive Communion."
"I, as a pastor and a shepherd, I just don't understand that," Wailliez, who has been a priest for over 20 years, told ABS-CBN News.
The Archdiocese of Manila and other dioceses earlier announced the suspension of Masses in churches to avoid the congregation of people, a situation considered risky for the spread of the disease.
They said their upcoming Holy Week and Easter Sunday activities will also not be open to the public as Luzon remains on lockdown. The enhanced community quarantine was supposed to end on April 12, Easter Sunday, but the President has extended it to April 30.
According to lockdown guidelines, mass gatherings during the period are prohibited.
Wailliez, who's been doing Catholic missions for SSPX all over Asia and Europe for the past decade of his life, stressed that the Church should be there for the faithful during the pandemic, without opposing government measures.
"I find it abnormal (that) the priests aren't there when the faithful need them most. We are the shepherds. I'm not saying the priests should be imprudent. I'm not saying the priests have to violate the law. What I mean is, if priests are shepherds, the priests cannot abandon the flock."
Wailliez said the Church could have done something different than temporarily closing its services to the faithful, who need it during the crisis, since livestream services do not suffice.
"What I think we could've done, that's what we have done our best to do, is to limit the number of people entering the church, adding some extra Masses, and asking people to spread out during the services. I think these are the right measures," he said.
Usually, during the Holy Week, palm leaves that represent what Jesus' horse trod on when he entered Jerusalem would decorate the SSPX's Our Lady of Victories church in New Manila, Quezon City.
It also welcomes an influx of the faithful during the Visita Iglesia, a tradition where people visit different churches during the Holy Week.
But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only long shadows and still silence accompany the icons and statues in the church.
"We are saddened, because here in the Philippines, the very many beautiful traditions from Spanish origin, in addition to other services, it's a bit sad not to be able to have them," Wailliez said.
"But at the same time, we're preparing ourselves in doing the liturgy as beautifully as it normally is, because, for us, regardless whether we have 5 people, 10 people, 30 people in attendance, or 400 as we usually have per service, it's all the same -- it's for God's glory."
Earlier, Pope Francis cautioned against drastic measures on churches, saying they are not "always good" especially since a crisis, like the ongoing pandemic, is when the faithful need the Church most.
An official of the Catholic Bishop's Conference of the Philippines, however, said that based on what the Church is doing today, "one shouldn’t even consider the idea of abandonment."
"Church’s facilities are now used as temporary shelters for frontliners, parishes are giving grocery items to poor parishioners, Caritas (group) distributes Gift Certificates to the poorest of the poor while we priests continue celebrating liturgies, praying for the vulnerable and invoking God to put an end to this crisis," CBCP spokesperson Fr. Jerome Secillano said in an online message to ABS-CBN News.
Livestream masses should also not be underestimated, Secillano said.
"One should not even underestimate the efficacy of the prayers being done on-line. They are the same prayers heard by God. The cry of the poor and the helpless," he said.
Secillano also cited Pope Francis' earlier action, where the Holy Father delivered an extraordinary “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) blessing - normally given only at Christmas and Easter.
Catholics who receive the blessing, either in person or via the media, can, under certain conditions, receive a special indulgence. An indulgence is remission of punishment for sins.
"The Church, through the Pope, gave indulgences, absolutions, pardon from sins and other graces spiritual in nature that are absolutely valid and efficacious in these extraordinary circumstances," Secillano said.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, meanwhile, said that while she's a devout Catholic, her "public health knowledge and experience dictates that it is best for now to disallow Church activities, and let people hear their Mass in their home."
"The Catholic Church has already recognized this as an important public health measure to address the current health situation, and have even announced regularly online schedule of masses, which signifies their support to the current efforts of government," she said in an online message to ABS-CBN News.
As of Wednesday, the Philippines has recorded 3,870 cases of COVID-19, with 182 deaths and 96 recoveries.
Worldwide, more than 1.2 million people have been infected with the disease, with over 67,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
-- With a report from Reuters