MANILA, Philippines — Thousands of Roman Catholic faithful fulfilled their vows to an image believed to be miraculous, many of them praying for an end to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The devotees observed physical distancing as they queued for morning masses yesterday in Quiapo Church to celebrate the feast of the Black Nazarene, represented by a centuries-old black wooden statue of Jesus Christ carrying a cross, believed to bring miracles to the faithful.
With the coronavirus pandemic afflicting the country, authorities cancelled the annual procession of the life-sized image – a ritual called Traslacion, which drew millions of devotees in the past years.
Instead, church leaders organized 15 masses at Manila’s Quiapo Church, which houses the life-sized statue, and livestreamed the worship services, pleading for devotees not to flock into the basilica.
“I am not afraid to go there even with the risk of COVID-19 because I have faith in Jesus the Nazarene. Every year, every week I go to church,” Arjay Echon, 29, a supermarket employee and a devotee for seven years, said.
Echon, wearing face mask and shield while carrying a small replica of the Black Nazarene, said he is praying for the pandemic to end.
Police estimated a crowd of nearly 23,000 as of yesterday morning. It ballooned to 30,000 in the afternoon.
People in the queue, reminded by volunteers to practice one-meter physical distancing, were required to fill out contact tracing forms. Inside the church, devotees were disinfected before receiving communion.
About 80 percent of the country’s 108 million people identify as Roman Catholic, a legacy of hundreds of years as a Spanish colony.
“People were patiently in queue, waiting for their turn to get inside the church,” Fr. Douglas Badong, parochial vicar, told dzBB radio.
Badong said all Catholic churches from “Batanes to Mindanao” were open to devotees for localized Nazarene activities.
He debunked criticism that yesterday’s event was a “virus spreader.”
“We are spreaders of hope,” Badong countered.
Masses were also held abroad in the UAE, UK, Australia, Canada, Vienna in Austria and Las Vegas in the US.
Manila apostolic administrator Bishop Broderick Pabillo, who presided over the dawn mass at the Quiapo Church, said that the celebration went smoothly as health protocols and other measures were followed.
“They need God and they cling tightly to him,” Pabillo said.
In his homily, Pabillo reminded the faithful that God has never abandoned them amid the suffering brought about by the pandemic and several natural calamities like powerful typhoons.
“There He is carrying the cross, it was heavy and it made him stumble. That’s our Lord, always one with us, especially this time when life is more difficult because of the pandemic,” Pabillo said in his homily in Filipino.
“Many lost their jobs, many couldn’t leave their homes, barrio or barangay. But we know God is with us. That’s why our theme for this year is very beautiful: This is Christ, do not be afraid,” Pabillo said.
The cancelled annual procession of the statue depicting Jesus shouldering a heavy cross usually draws millions of devotees, many barefoot and jostling to get close and touch the image.
Two people were killed and more than 1,200 people suffered minor injuries in the dusk-to-dawn procession in 2016.
It is not known why the statue, which was carved in Mexico and brought to the Philippines in the early 17th century, turned black.
With more than 483,000 cases and 9,300 deaths, the Philippines has the second-highest COVID-19 cases and casualties in Southeast Asia, behind Indonesia.
“My personal prayer is good health for my family...I pray for a better Philippines this 2021 and for COVID-19 to end,” Prubancio Sarasin, 56, a security guard and devotee for 15 years, told Reuters.
Manila Mayor Isko Moreno said devotees had generally complied with physical distancing and other health protocols.
In a live Facebook address to the public, Moreno lambasted those he called fake purveyors of news that the Black Nazarene devotees and churchgoers violated health protocols, particularly social distancing.
“They are wearing face masks, face shields and observing social distancing. What more do you ask for from the sacrifice made by the devotees,” Moreno said.
“I commend my fellow Manileños for heeding our call, for strictly observing social distancing. They are waiting for their turn, queue with social distancing. These fake news are handiwork of politicians. It’s unfair to the devotees who sacrificed their devotions and culture. They did not even bring their replicas of the Black Nazarene,” Moreno said.
He said live footage of yesterday’s event in Quiapo prepared by the Manila Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office (MDRRMO) showed devotees’ adherence to health rules.
“The live video footage cannot lie. Photos can be edited, but the video doesn’t lie. Look at how the Manileños are disciplined. It never happened during the regular masses. Where are the 400,000 people according to reports. Those paid, the people of politicians are creating chaos. Batang Maynila, be proud of yourselves. The devotees sacrificed and the thing speaks for itself,” Moreno said.
“Those who are creating chaos are not from Manila,” he said, adding, “I’m so proud of all of you.”
Manila Police District (MPD) director Brig. Gen. Leo Francisco also said devotees and church goers generally followed health protocols, and that reports claiming that the crowd had ballooned to over 400,000 may have factored in the buildup of people beginning Friday. “Since (Friday) 400,000 accumulated population or devotees arrived and spread in two-kilometer radius,” he said.
But Philippine National Police (PNP) spokesman Brig. Gen. Ilderandi Usana said the public should be ready for a possible spike in COVID-19 cases as thousands attended the masses for the Feast of the Black Nazarene.
“We better assume there would be widespread infections out of the throngs of devotees who just couldn’t resist getting to the annual event despite the government’s intense warning,” Usana said in a text message.
He said he hopes the devotees complied with minimum health guidelines such as wearing of face masks and face shields as well as observing physical distancing.
PNP deputy chief for administration Lt. Gen. Guillermo Eleazar said police officers who secured the event were well protected from possible health risk. “We undergo regular testing,” he said. Around 7,000 policemen were deployed in Manila for the religious activity.
The Department of Health (DOH), for its part, has called on those who went to Quiapo for the Black Nazarene event to observe themselves for possible symptoms of COVID-19.
DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III said the breach of crowd control is a cause of concern for him.
Duque said in a text message that he was informed by Moreno’s chief of staff Cesar Chavez that there were three layers of crowd control which carried out their tasks in close coordination with the police.
There were photos and video clips that circulated yesterday showing many devotees violating basic health protocols, particularly physical distancing.
In a statement, the DOH noted those who joined the religious event should do home isolation if possible.
“It would be best to isolate themselves, if possible, if there are senior citizens or any vulnerable individuals in the households. They have to minimize interactions with others,” it added.
“If they feel any symptoms, they should coordinate immediately with their BHERT (barangay health emergency response team),” the DOH said.
Some devotees reported health issues, including dizziness and hypertension.
The Philippine Red Cross (PRC) reported that its first aid teams responded to 58 patients as of 3 p.m. yesterday.
Of this number, 45 patients reported high blood pressure while 11 others were “minor cases” of sprain, swelling, abrasion, burn, asthma and dizziness.
The PRC had dispatched 100 personnel and volunteers and set up three first aid stations in Quiapo Church, Sta. Cruz Church and San Sebastian Church. Ten ambulances were on standby.
Meanwhile, Senate President Vicente Sotto III said faith in the Black Nazarene made hundreds of devotees ignore social distancing.
Sotto said he saw video footage showing devotees crowding together in disregard of physical distancing rules just to have themselves sprinkled with holy water.
He said that while he understands the feelings of devotees, there are rules to follow to ensure everyone is protected from COVID-19. – Sheila Crisostomo, Ghio Ong, Emmanuel Tupas, Jose Rodel Clapano, Cecille Suerte-Felipe, Reuters