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Mass online ‘is not enough’: Philippine parish reaches out to poor under quarantine

In the parish church of San Isidro Labrador on the outskirts of Manila, one will be greeted with empty pews and a deafening silence. 

It was the first day of the government-imposed quarantine of the Philippine capital to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.

Most of the lights in the church, bar one next to the tabernacle, were extinguished.

Parish priest Gilbert Billena said he makes sure there is always a burning candle next to it.

“The Blessed Sacrament is a reminder that the Church cannot stop working for the poor,” Father Billena said.

“We can suspend the celebration of Masses but we cannot stop caring,” said the priest. “A burning candle and its light is reminder that Christ is above all these things.”

Church activities in the capital, and in many parts of the country, were temporarily halted after the Philippine government imposed a “community quarantine.”

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A pastoral letter issued by the Diocese of Novaliches, which covers the San Isidro Labrador parish, announced all “mass gatherings” in parishes had been suspended.

Meetings of different parish ministries have also been put on hold, but its social action ministry maintains a skeletal workforce, “in case we need to respond,” said the priest.

Father Gilbert Billena prepares supplies for distribution to poor families in his parish in the village of Bagong Silangan in Quezon City. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

Inside the convent, Father Billena and his staff set up an altar for the celebration of Mass that will be broadcast on social media. 

“I know it is a different experience, but it is the best thing that we can do right now,” said the priest.

A church worker on his bike roamed around the village to announce the schedule of the online Masses and where people can view them.

Father Billena, however, said streaming Mass online “is not enough.” He said he feels “anxious and guilty” about confining himself inside the church.

“How about those people who do not have internet access or don’t even have mobile phones? How about those families who go to church not just to pray but to ask for food,” he asked.

The parish of San Isidro Labrador is located in the village of Bagong Silangan, a poor district on the outskirts of Quezon City with at least 60,000 Catholics.

“[The] majority of them are poor,” said Father Billena.

The poor’s dilemma

Victor Villar, 44, was aware of the government order to stay home. He, too, was anxious about his family’s safety and survival, but doesn’t have the means to get by. 

“We don’t have money for groceries,” said Victor, a pedicab driver in the village.

Victor Villar, 44, and his family live in an eight-square-meter room on the first floor of a shanty with no water supply. Victor earns an average of $10 a day, just barely enough to feed his family. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

On March 13, he came home early from work to be with his wife and ten children.

“There were no passengers because the classes were suspended,” he said. 

Victor earns an average of $10 on a day. The amount is just enough to feed his family. With the lockdown, however, his livelihood has been affected. 

“People are already afraid to go out,” he said. 

He said he has not earned enough money ver the past several days because classes due to class suspensions in the previous week. 

Victor’s family lives in an eight-square-meter room on the first floor of a shanty that is illuminated with one fluorescent bulb. The home has no water supply, and is only ventilated through the door. 

It was already 5 p.m. when Father Billena visited Victor’s family.  

The priest brought food packs, including rice, biscuits, canned goods, Vitamin C for the children, a few masks, and a bar of soap. 

Victor’s family is one of the hundreds of poor families in the parish that have no access to basic social services.

Father Billena went inside the shanty and asked for a pail of water. The priest demonstrated to the family how to properly wash their hands with soap.

Victor buys water from a neighbor for $0.08 per pail. 

“The children haven’t taken a bath for three days now,” he confessed. “We need at least 10 pails of water a day to wash,” he said, adding that he has no more money for water.

Father Billena visits Victor Villar to give a pack of supplies for the family that has been affected by the lockdown of the Philippine capital. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

The so-called “social distancing” ordered by the government is also impossible for the family, as they live and sleep together in the cramped shanty.

Quarantine is no vacation

Even with the suspension of Masses, providing a helping hand to families like Viktor’s is one of the many ways in which Father Billena’s work continues.

“Many poor families must feel the Church’s presence in their lives even in times of a pandemic or an outbreak,” he said.

He said the “lockdown” and suspension of church activities gives the parish time to come up of ways to help the poor who have no access to medical services.

The parish’s Basic Ecclesial Community, for example, is helping the village health unit to monitor any hint of community transmission of the disease.

Father Billena had instructed community leaders and BEC members to report to authorities any suspected local transmission to avoid undetected cases.

“What we really need is a concrete plan if the virus spreads in this poor parish,” he said. “What will we do if people start to get sick,” asked the priest.

For now, Father Billena relies on the government announcements, but he said the time will come that the parish will have to mobilize to help the poor who will be affected by the disease.

Father Billena demonstrates the proper way of washing hands to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

He said he has started to equip parish workers with personal protective equipment and proper procedures when going to communities. 

“We have purchased some protective medical suites in case we will need it but it’s not enough. We also need medical supplies for the poor families,” he said. 

The parish has scheduled a regular disinfection of the church building, including the convent and the compound using a sprayer that the priest bought online.

Father Billena said it is important that the church is always clean and safe for congregants. 

“The real mission has just started,” he said. “And it is not to confine ourselves inside the convent but to assist our communities to fight and survive this outbreak.” 

Father Billena has already scheduled a daily online celebration of the Holy Eucharist for his parish every day at 5 p.m. during weekdays and at 7 p.m. on Sundays. 

The rest of his time he spends visiting poor families in his parish who are in need “not just of spiritual guidance, but of social services.”

He said he cannot gather his flock inside the church because of the quarantine, “but I can definitely reach out to them and let them see and feel that the Church is not on lockdown.” 

“The Catholic Church cannot ever be under lockdown because the Church is the people,” Father Billena said. “Church workers can still take care of their health while being with the poor.”

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