Blessed are You, O Lord, the God of our fathers, praiseworthy and exalted above all forever; and blessed is Your holy and glorious name, praiseworthy and exalted above all for all ages. Blessed are You in the temple of Your holy glory, praiseworthy and glorious above all forever. Blessed are You on the throne of Your kingdom, praiseworthy and exalted above all forever. Glory and praise forever!
– The Book of Daniel, 3:52-54
With all the restrictions on religious activities to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19), can the faithful still do proper worship of our Lord?
Consider the “Protocol for religious services in the Archdiocese of Manila?” promulgated by Archdiocesan Administrator Bishop Broderick Pabillo (https://www.rcam.org/index.php/component/k2/item/800-protocol-for-religious-services-in-the-archdiocese-of-manila).
First and foremost, the suspension of Sunday Mass obligations, announced by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) in early March, continues despite the resumption of Sunday Masses with the easing of enhanced community quarantine (ECQ). The reason, of course, is the limited attendance allowed at Mass, as few as ten, making it impossible for most Catholics to attend Sunday services.
The archdiocese further mandates at least 30 minutes’ gap between Masses for disinfection by the newly created Sanitation Ministry. With fewer Sunday services, there should be more weekday Masses, which the faithful are encouraged to attend since many cannot go on Sunday. Anticipated Masses on Saturdays are urged to start earlier at 3 p.m., so more can be held. And online streaming of Masses will continue.
Church entrances and exits should be at different distant doorways so people on the way in don’t encounter those going out. There should be temperature checks and hand sanitizers at entrances, and antiseptic footbaths at all doorways. Pew markers shall designate where to sit with ample distances between people. And most of all, anyone with coughs, colds and other flu-like symptoms should stay home.
Many will cheer the admonition to keep comfort rooms clean and sanitary, with ample soap and alcohol. All priests and Mass servers should wear facemasks; by law, so should Mass-goers and other people at church. Collection of Mass donations should be with bags at the end of poles, as was the practice before collection boxes were passed around. To fight germs, all Mass items should be washed with hot water and ironed, and lectern microphones should have covers, to be replaced after each Mass.
Will healthy get in the way of holy?
All the foregoing protocols sound healthy and still holy. But other archdiocesan regulations may raise concerns that they could restrict religiosity.
Bishop Pabillo finds too few the 10-person limit set by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases on all religious activities. But some archdiocesan rules may also been seen as curbing the fervor and gesture of worship, even as they are deemed acts of charity in preventing the spread of infection.
At holy images, for instance, signs forbid age-old practices of touching, wiping and kissing the statues and pictures. Holy water fonts are emptied and covered. Instead of mass choirs, only a cantor and an accompanist shall lead the congregation singing. Deemed at high risk from Covid-19, seniors and minors are discouraged from serving at church. This writer’s Santuario de San Jose Parish (SSJP) in Greenhills, San Juan City, limits laity serving at Mass to one altar server, one lector, one commentator and two lay communion ministers.
And directly affecting the worship of the Body and Blood of Christ, there would be no more words exchanged between the ministers giving communion and the faithful receiving the Real Presence. Instead, the priest would just declare to the congregation just before people line up for communion, “The Body of Christ” to which Mass-goers would reply in unison, “Amen.”
Perhaps most painful of all for Eucharistic devotees like this writer, the Perpetual Adoration chapels, where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for adoration, are closed, since they are often enclosed rooms thought to help spread infection. Thankfully, the faithful can still worship our Lord’s Body and Blood before the church tabernacle, where the Eucharist is reposed, as signified by the lit sanctuary lamp.
So, do health protocols to curb Covid-19 undermining holiness? Some mostly traditional parishes insist on continuing past practices, arguing that the blessings these rites obtain are most needed now. Other such advocates of unrestricted religiosity cite sustained Christian practices during past and present plagues, even the current coronavirus outbreak in China. Indeed, in the ancient Roman Empire, leading figures extolled the spirituality and caring shown by Christians to the disease-stricken.
There will be much debate and discussion on this challenging issue of sustaining both public worship and public health. Even as it is now forbidden to “greet one another with a holy kiss,” as the Sunday Mass reading from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians urges, one is encouraged that whatever the faithful may do to praise and bless the Lord, He looks upon all in their heart of hearts and sees the worship, faith, hope and love we bear for Him, despite the health restrictions.
In our pandemic protocols, our souls still declare to God: “Glory and praise forever!?” Amen.