Present in spirit: Devotion in the time of COVID-19

Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 09 2020 11:15 PM | Updated as of Apr 15 2020 03:47 PM

The bells of the church are ringing, but the night has lent its ears to silence. 

The crowds usually gathered at the Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage, more popularly known as the Antipolo Cathedral, during Holy Week are nowhere to be found, the winding pathways leading to the church empty of the devotees eager to show their faith.

For decades, pilgrims from all over the country would gather at the church as early as Maundy Thursday until the Dawn of Good Friday, some walking from as far as Quiapo some 16 kilometers (kms) away to pray to the image of the Virgin Mary, which they consider miraculous, as a sign of their devotion.

Only a few weeks before, it would have been unimaginable to see the roads leading to the cathedral empty. It seems, however, that the Luzon lockdown and the threat of COVID-19 have made devotees think twice. Perhaps, they consider the enhanced community quarantine is sacrifice enough.

For some, however, the quarantine does not stop them from expressing their devotion. They simply find different ways to show their faith.

Showing Devotion

One such person is Ching Alarcon. As she sits with her extended family in their living room on Wednesday night, they watch a Mass for the Healing being broadcast from the cathedral via the internet on their television screen.

The 50-year-old says, “Kami po ay taga-Antipolo talaga, kaya ang debosyon lalo na sa mahal na birhen ay solid.” 

(We have our roots here in Antipolo, that's why our devotion is really solid.)

She adds, “Pag meron kami malaki o maliit na problema, si Mama Mary ang takbuhan namin.”

(When we have problems big or small, we run to Mother Mary for help.)

The family’s devotion, however, is not just limited to attending Mass. Ching’s son, Vince, volunteers at the church’s multimedia and communications department. He had a hand in broadcasting the Mass his family is watching.

Still present

Throughout the night, only the assigned priests and some staff members are the ones at the cathedral. They are the only connection to the usual throng of devotees.

This, however, does not discourage them. Brother Francis Baasis says, “Although they may be invisible sa church, visible naman sila sa simbahan through social media.” 

The church already began broadcasting Masses back in February, when news that the COVID-19 virus had already reached their community.

Difficult Adjustment

But Ching says they did not expect the lockdown to last this long.

“Pero hindi naman namin ine-expect na aabot sa ganito ka grabe, yung aabot sa ganitong panahon.”

(We didn’t expect that it would reach this long.)

She adds, the adjustment has not been easy. 

“Siyempre sobrang lungkot kasi hindi mo na magagawa ang gusto mo, ni lumabas hindi ka na makalabas.”

(It's so sad because you can't do the things you want and you can't go out.)

“Unang-una, yung ikinalulungkot namin yung pagtigil ng misa. Nag-e-expect ka sana na magkakaroon pa ng isa pang misa sa simbahan.” 

(What we're really sad about is the Masses stopped. We were expecting that there would be at least one more Mass inside the cathedral.)

The cathedral grounds is large and people usually pray for healing at the various stations of the cross. Now, however, it lies empty, and for Ching and her family, it's so near yet so far.

“Ni lumapit sa simbahan, hindi mo na magagawa.”

(I can't even go near the cathedral.)

Waiting to come back

The Alarcon family is hoping for a chance to go back as a family and pray inside the church soon. In the meantime, their prayers are held in front of their impromptu altar. Composed of a rosary, crucifix and a small statue of the Madonna and Christ, it serves its purpose. 

As the lockdown extends till the end of April, thousands of devotees expecting to celebrate the Lady of Peace and Good Voyage will no longer be able to do it the way used to, but they remain optimistic.

“Sana ay talagang may pag-asang dumating sa Easter Sunday dahil sa nangyayari sa ngayon. Nawa’y mahipo lahat ng may sakit,” says Ching. 

(We are hoping that on Easter Sunday, hope will return, and the sick would heal.) 

“Sa Easter, sa Linggo ng Pagkabuhay ni Kristo, patay si virus," she adds optimistically.

(With the advent of Easter, the virus will die.)

For now though, the pilgrims can’t walk the steps to the church, but they hope their prayers would be enough to reach the altars.

“Naniniwala kami at nananalig na mamamatay ang virus," she says with finality. 

(We firmly believe and trust that the virus will be beaten.) 

The roads to the Antipolo Cathedral lie empty on Holy Wednesday. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

The courtyard, usually filled with devotees who walk as far as 16 kms away are empty of the usual people showing their devotion. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

A woman prays outside the cathedral, one of the few allowed to pray inside the premises. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Gone are the usual thousands of devotees who swear by the blessing they receive from the image of the Virgin Mary which they consider miraculous. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Empty pews and dimly-lit hallways now remain in the absence of pilgrims. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Mass gatherings are prohibited due to the Luzon lockdown, aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Fr. Francis says that while his flock may not be physically present, they are actually able to reach more people because of the internet. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

The image known as Our lady of Antipolo or the Blessed Lady was brought from Mexico in the 1600s and is considered miraculous. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

The Alarcons pray in front of their makeshift altar at home as they listen to the Mass being broadcast from the church. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Ching Alarcon and her extended family, joined by the Pedraja family, honor the Blessed Lady inside their home in Antipolo City. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

The church's Mass is broadcast on the internet, something Vince Alarcon had a hand in. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

While they cannot be at Mass physically, they make sure to pray at home and find different ways to honor their faith. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Arianne, one of the younger members of the group, prays as she joins members of the Alarcon and Pedraja family in praying at home. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Ching says they are firm believers that the virus will be defeated. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

The Alarcons say they cannot wait to pray as a family inside the cathedral. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News