Today’s outside world is almost unrecognizable. The cacophony of noises that once signified a city’s hustle and bustle has been replaced with unnerving silence, leaving little to no trace of what everyday life used to be.
The same can be observed in houses of worship, where walls that used to echo the lively voices of people chanting, singing, and praying now enclose tranquil, empty spaces. For places that have never been quiet, the silence they now hold is all the more deafening.
With no foreseeable end to the pandemic in sight, the idea of gathering as a community has since been challenged, prompting an unconventional shift that would redefine it. Along with this comes the impact that such unusual times would have on people’s faith as they contemplate the roles that places of worship and religion now play in their lives.
The digital church
When the pandemic broke out in March of last year, big gatherings immediately became a health hazard. Unlike tradition, much-anticipated religious holidays like Eid al-Fitr and Easter were not celebrated communally as Muslims and Catholics socially distanced from their loved ones. Most liturgical services all over the country were halted, and several religious groups found themselves at a loss on how to resume operations without jeopardizing their communities.
Missy Sanares-Reyes, a parishioner of St. Alphonsus Mary de Liguori Church in Makati City, remarks how her parish took a three-month adjustment period before successfully conducting online masses on video streaming platforms like Facebook and YouTube. “Our parish was still catching up [on acquiring] the [necessary] equipment [to film and broadcast online masses], so these [formally] began in June,” she recounts. Since then, other liturgical activities have also relied on the said video streaming platforms, from Lectio Divina sessions to the Lenten season’s Stations of the Cross.
The successful shift to an online environment was made possible by select parishioners and parish staff, who volunteer to film and participate in these liturgical activities physically. To ensure their utmost safety, the parish imposed the necessary precautions that are in accordance with the rules set by the Inter-Agency Task Force. These range from physical distancing, proper sanitation within all areas of the church and for shared equipment, and swab and rapid tests.
The physical interaction that brings people together during worship may be absent, but to many, it is now the least of their concerns. With the help of the internet, community worship can still be achieved from the comfort of people’s homes. “It made it possible for those not allowed to go out, such as seniors and underage children, to still attend mass and hear the Word of God,” Sanares-Reyes emphasizes.
Despite face-to-face community worship curbed by the pandemic, religion can still serve as a support system even in a time where contact can only be done through screens. Emily Ann Lombos, an industrial-organizational psychologist from Ateneo de Manila University and a fellow parishioner of St. Alphonsus, cites an initiative of her parish titled COVID Conversation, a special Zoom session where they discussed the pandemic and provided support and resources for those who needed it. “That conversation [helped] share information to the community, and [consequently], they were linked to specific resources,” she shares. The church’s priority lies on the physical and mental wellbeing of its parishioners and such programs serve as a checkpoint for how each individual is coping.
Given that the majority of the parishioners are self-sufficient and have access to their own medical care and safety materials, many efforts to assist the nearby parishes in other communities are being done. Sanares-Reyes states that one of their most successful undertakings was a parish fundraising through the selling of Advent wreaths and face masks containing the parish logo. Resourceful parishioners like the neighborhood’s Green Cross product distributors have also donated a number of essentials. “Our parish priest has encouraged many outreach programs to donate food and medical needs to other parishes that have not been able to cope with the decrease in [their] income,” she remarks.
Faith in the time of pandemic
In these times, how would one’s individual faith continue to hold up? For some, the pandemic urges them to turn to God to help strengthen their faith. According to Lombos, one reason why people turn to religion as a source of strength is that it provides a sense of guidance and consolation. “These religious practices help us deal with life: challenges, difficulties, crises, [they] give us a handle to hold onto.
[They are] something that we’re familiar with, and that’s where religion can come as [a form of] guidance, or as a way for people to cope,” she explains.
On the flip side, a lot of people would find themselves disillusioned from their faith over the course of the quarantine period. Lombos explains that this reaction would be driven by a sense of fear and frustration coming from the strange uncertainties of our age and worsened by the tediousness and discomfort of today’s reality. Anger coming from the desire to blame higher powers for what is happening right now are both valid factors as to why people’s faith would die down. “[The situation] is something new, it’s something unfamiliar. Thus, [many have this urge] to find something to blame, because it is a problem bigger than themselves,” she adds.
She goes on to suggest that a Christian way of handling these emotions would be to look toward Jesus for inspiration: “If you connect it to faith, go back to how Jesus handled His anger. Go back also to the fear and how you could be relating it to the narratives of our faith, the stories in the Gospel.”
A sense of community
Religion serves many functions in society. For a country that has had its fair share of crises, it provides answers to questions that are beyond human comprehension, offers emotional comfort, and finds order where there is chaos. Individuals that share beliefs and values group together and interact, helping out one another materially and spiritually when things are difficult. Even for a moment, that togetherness helps alleviate a part of their suffering. In a country where systemic solutions are few and far in between, it is no wonder that we cling to the possibility of the heavenly great beyond.
As the pandemic drastically changed our lives, religion remains a stalwart institution amid struggle and uncertainty. As Sanares-Reyes puts it: “The church, being our spiritual home, provides consolation, guidance, and comfort during these desperate times.”