By Denise A. Valdez, Reporter
CRISTINA G. TAPAO, 61, went to the Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish — just a tricycle ride away from her house in a small rural village near the Philippine capital — everyday.
That was before the government of Asia’s most Christian nation locked down the main island of Luzon in mid-March, suspending work, classes and public transportation and banning mass gatherings including religious meetings to contain a coronavirus pandemic.
Mrs. Tapao is one of the eight in 10 adult Filipinos who consider religion “very important” in their lives, according to a December 2019 poll by the Social Weather Stations.
“My day is not complete without it,” she said in Filipino by telephone. “When I wake up, I want to go to church first.”
The government of President Rodrigo R. Duterte banned religious gatherings to try to slow coronavirus infections that have sickened more than 26,000 and killed at least 1,103 people in the predominantly Catholic nation.
And rightly so, after religious meetings across the world became hotbeds for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreaks. Half of South Korea’s cases can be traced back to a meeting of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, while hundreds of Muslims got infected after worshiping at a mosque in Kuala Lumpur.
More than 500 members of an Episcopalian church In Washington, DC were forced to self-quarantine for two weeks after a rector who gave communion tested positive for the virus.
While the lockdown in most places in the Philippines has been eased, restrictions on mass gatherings including public worship remain, forcing religious groups to seek alternatives.
The Catholic Church has moved to virtual platforms for the weekly mass. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) issued a circular on March 13 ordering its churches to avoid large gatherings and use digital technology for communion.
“We wanted the people not to be deprived of the sacraments and the blessings that come from the church, so we just have to innovate and be creative,” CBCP Executive Secretary Fr. Jerome R. Secillano said by telephone.
The Catholic Church, majority of whose members don’t attend mass, seem to be experiencing some sort of religious revival, with more people embracing it as the global health crisis reminds people of life’s fragility.
Masses through radio, television and live Facebook streaming have drawn large swaths of viewers even from outside the country, Fr. Secillano said. “They became more prayerful. Even those who did not go to church are now forced to attend digital masses.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses, a minority Christian group known for their house-to-house preaching work worldwide, have also attracted many outsiders to their online meetings during the pandemic, spokesman Dean Jacek said by telephone.
“It’s very interesting because many of our congregations noticed an increase in attendance when we went online,” he said.
The Christian group that counts 223,000 members in the Philippines has been using online platforms such as Zoom Cloud Meetings to hold their midweek and weekend meetings. They have also been preaching from home using telephones and messaging apps to reach more people in their homes.
“We feel that some guests who attend our programs have noticed that the things happening now including the pandemic were prophesied in the Bible,” Mr. Jacek said. “As a result, it kind of encourages their faith.”
Evangelical Favor Church noticed a similar behavior among its members. “We believe that Jesus can actually bring hope, healing and provision to all those that seek him,” Senior Pastor James Aiton said in an e-mail. “We have seen people who never would have come to church beginning to tune in to our services.”
The group has been holding worship activities in several streaming platforms including Facebook, which attracted three million viewers in March, he said.
Meanwhile, the Iglesia Ni Cristo (Church of Christ) has been guiding families under it to hold their own worship services at home because not all members have access to fast internet, spokesman Edwil Zabala said in an e-mail.
The group, which has become a formidable influence in Philippine politics by encouraging its members to vote in elections, uses technology to spread its teachings.
“Using technology, the Iglesia Ni Cristo continues to accommodate the growing number of people who have expressed a desire to know more about the doctrines of the Bible that the Iglesia Ni Cristo upholds,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also affected the worship of more than 13 million Filipino Muslims, mostly on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Many of them were forced to celebrate Ramadan starting in April with a fast at home given the ban on mass gatherings.
While most religions seem to have been able to cope, those that rely on members’ tithes and donations have had to deal with dwindling money in church coffers.
“Our weekly giving has definitely taken a hit during this pandemic,” Mr. Aiton, the pastor, said. Members were encouraged to transfer money through online banking to cover the church’s operational costs and support charity.
While Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t require tithing and donations are voluntary, the organization already had online platforms for donations even before the lockdown, Mr. Jacek said. Of course, contributions for its worldwide work have been scarce presumably because some people have lost their jobs.
Still, local congregations have been receiving donations from members, which the group uses to help fellow brothers and sisters in need, Mr. Jacek said.
“Filipinos are not necessarily more religious now,” Ateneo de Manila University Associate Professor Jayeel S. Cornelio, an expert on religion and sociology, said in an e-mail. “The COVID-19 situation is a crisis that has simply revealed how religious Filipinos are.”
“Religious life is going to be even more vibrant because the quarantine became a wake-up call,” he said. In some instances, religion may be the only answer to grief, anxiety and loss, he added.
Mrs. Tapao, who went to church daily before the lockdown, listens to as many as four homilies a day through radio and social media.
“I long for the time when I can freely go to church to pray,” she said. “That’s the first thing I would do when the pandemic is over.”