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Fiesta Señor and public prayer during pandemics

The closure to the public of novena Mass for the 456th Fiesta Señor at the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño in Cebu City is saddening but necessary.

As the Jan. 17 feast day for the Holy Child Jesus approached, friars of the Order of Saint Augustine (OSA) said that throngs attending Mass outside the basilica’s designated worship spaces had burgeoned, thwarting physical distancing measures. Such crowding compelled the OSA to restrict Mass to a chapel for the faithful to follow online, they said in a statement dated Jan. 11 and signed by Fr. Pacifico Nohara Jr., the basilica’s rector.

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The Philippine government lets churches operate at half their capacity in a modified general community quarantine, which is in effect in Cebu. To facilitate safe distancing, the friars had prepared a more conservative 1,800-seat capacity for Mass attendees. Upon government advice, they had denied entry to nonresidents of Cebu City. They had also suspended the post-Mass Sinulog—a communal dance for the Santo Niño. The basilica’s premises were sanitized after every Mass, and only people who wore masks and face shields and who brought acceptable passes were admitted.

Given such religious adherence to the health protocols, it is a shame that nine days of face-to-face Fiesta Señor novena Mass needed to be suspended.

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Netizens’ demands for the suspension did not help. They pushed the narrative that like the December 2020 pre-Christmas celebrations of dawn and night Mass, liturgies for the Fiesta Señor 2021 were vehicles for spreading the coronavirus. Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama voiced a similar assertion after canceling this year’s Sinulog street dancing showdown. In a privilege speech at the City Council, he said that the Fiesta Señor novena Mass series was a greater public health threat than a festival.

These claims, however, lack evidence. On Jan. 11, the city‘s emergency operations center reported that of more than 350 patients recorded in December, only one went to Misa de Gallo. Three went to Mass at other times. Further, Mayor Edgardo Labella said that Cebu City did not need tighter quarantine, which would have shrunk religious gatherings to only 30 percent of a church’s capacity.

The suspension of the Fiesta Señor novena Mass within these contexts is a sacrifice that gives the Catholic faithful pause to reflect.

It could have been avoided had the number of people inside the basilica been monitored, such that pilgrims at the entrances were gently urged to go home as soon as the 1,800 available places were filled.

It would have been unnecessary had pilgrims outside the worship spaces been continually reminded to faithfully observe the health protocols, and had everyone there been careful enough to stand apart by at least one meter from one another and to wear face shields and masks correctly.

It would have been inconceivable had more of the faithful been catechized well enough to understand that with a packed church, praying the novena at home or in their nearest parish did not make them less Christian.

It would have been just had other places where people congregate been closely monitored, too. Were these places, such as malls, resorts, beaches, buses, and cockfighting arenas checked for crowd density and pressured to close given their own physical distancing deficiencies?

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It would have been fair had people who watched the rising numbers of COVID-19 patients in January been introspective enough to realize that in December 2020, the coronavirus most probably spread far more often in (their own?) health protocol noncompliant social gatherings than in churches.

To belittle safe public prayer during a pandemic is counterscientific and anti-democratic. Per a Gallup study in December 2020, frequent churchgoers are among the most mentally resilient groups of people facing this health crisis. Religious adherents in countries including the United States, France, the United Kindom, Australia, and Brazil have been winning court or public square battles against the government over unreasonable pandemic-related strictures.

As we celebrate the quincentenary of Christianity in the Philippines amid a global health emergency, Filipinos, more often than not believers and citizens at the same time, must become better guardians of the freedom of religion.

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Prof. Jason Abellaneda Baguia heads the faculty of the baccalaureate program in communication at the College of Communication, Art, and Design in the University of the Philippines Cebu. He has edited and written for various journalistic, literary, and scholarly publications in the country and abroad.

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TAGS: coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus philippines, COVID-19, Fiesta Señor, Jason Abellaneda Baguia, public prayer, quarantine rules
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