Pews across the Philippines were empty and churches locked their doors to parishioners, as priests went house-to-house to bless the faithful on a Palm Sunday like no other in Asia’s only predominantly Catholic country.
Sunday’s observances of the day that marks the start of Holy Week on the Christian calendar usually draws large crowds. The other days that follow during Holy Week are traditionally observed in the Philippines through extreme acts of devotion.
But a public health emergency over the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting restrictions on large gatherings have put a damper on this year’s celebrations.
In the southern city of Iligan on Palm Sunday, Bishop Jose Rapadas III stared at the empty pews and sighed.
“I miss the huge rows of people of God inside the cathedral on Sunday,” he told BenarNews.
The Christian faith is steeped in many traditions, so it will be an awakening for many Filipinos to experience the coming week “in concrete ways,” said Broderick Pabillo, Manila’s auxiliary bishop.
“The Holy Week, for us Filipino Catholics, is the most spiritually charged time of the year,” he said. “It is a special time marked by many traditional religious activities.”
But this time around, because of the pandemic, there will be no public spectacle of the Good Friday flagellation. The tradition has become a major tourist attraction over the years, with thousands descending on a dusty hill in the tiny village of Cutud, north of Manila, to witness crucifixions.
Much of the nation has been under quarantine for three weeks after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered a lockdown of Luzon island, home to the Manila, the nation’s capital.
The church is advising Catholics to use their quarantine time to “read the gospels from end to end” and reflect on being a Christian as this time of global pandemic.
In Iligan, Bishop Rapadas paid tribute to a doctor, Leonel Quitos, 33, the lone infectious disease specialist in Iligan who had treated patients but was under quarantine. Already, about 20 Filipino doctors have died of COVID-19.
Meanwhile in nearby Cagayan de Oro city, police arrested a pastor, Alfred Caslam, 58, after about 500 members of the World of God Spirit and Life Ministries had flocked inside an old theater. They were accused of violating “social distancing” measures.
“We checked and found the names of 495 members in their attendance list. Many of them have their children with them,” said Antonio Resma Jr., head of the city’s regulatory compliance board.
Basilio Sepe in Manila, Froilan Gallardo in Cagayan de Oro, Jojo Rinoza in Dagupan and Luis Liwanag in Quezon City contributed to this report.