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A member of the Hijos del Nazareno (Sons of the Nazarene) holds bottles of holy water while wearing a face mask and shield in compliance with COVID-19 protocols. Photo: Alecs Ongcal
Religion

How COVID Affected One of the Largest Catholic Processions in the World

Filipino Catholics cling to their faith in times of uncertainty, changing age-old traditions like the Feast of the Black Nazarene to adapt to the new normal.
January 11, 2021, 11:25am

The Feast of the Black Nazarene is one of the largest religious events in the Philippines, when millions gather every Jan. 9 to attend a 6-kilometer procession of a life-size statue of Jesus sculpted from dark wood. But with COVID-19 still around, this year, it was different. 

Holding such a big event raised fears in Filipinos, the government, and the Catholic Church, especially when the country is still recording new coronavirus cases. Places of worship were allowed to open in some areas in October, but can only welcome 30 percent of their capacity. Up to now, many of the millions of Filipino Catholics still attend mass online. But religious feasts are another story, with more people attending services this past Christmas season. On Saturday, hundreds of thousands reportedly visited the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene (more popularly known as Quiapo Church) as part of tradition — and a sign of their faith. 

“These feast days are very important to devotees because this is where the physical and spiritual worlds converge; where the community is transformed into a gateway to the holy world in a day,” University of the Philippines anthropology professor Carlos Tatel Jr. told VICE, explaining that people tend to cling even more to their faith in times of uncertainty. 

“These feast days are very important to devotees because this is where the physical and spiritual worlds converge.”

The Feast of the Black Nazarene is one of the holiest days for Filipino Catholics. Many believe that touching the statue could grant miracles, like cure diseases. Millions join the procession every year, usually leading to congested roads and injuries. Guidelines are set to avoid these but this time around, organizers had to deal with the added threat of COVID-19 as well.

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Jeric Marasigan, a devotee of four years, holds a photo of his younger brother who was killed in a petty fight during a basketball game. “This has been our tradition. We walk, travel, and pray together. I brought this photo so I can bring him with me.” Photo: Alecs Ongcal

Officials at Quiapo Church decided to push through with religious services, but for the new normal. Together with the Manila City Government, they came up with a system that allowed devotees to visit the church while social distancing. Alex Irasga, who headed the modified feast day celebration, said that they created these guidelines by taking into consideration the different ways the faithful show their devotion. 

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An LED screen livestreaming the mass to accommodate attendees outside. Photo: Alecs Ongcal

The biggest change was the cancellation of the procession known as Traslacion. Instead, there were 15 consecutive masses each holding only 30 percent (400 persons) of the church’s seating capacity. Novena masses were celebrated in other churches and made available online, while 14 prayer stations were established within the vicinity of the Quiapo Church, to encourage people to pray in their neighborhoods.

Instead of the “pahalik” (kiss) tradition, where devotees would line up to kiss the image of the Black Nazarene, the statue was presented on the church's veranda as people watched and prayed. Originally, people would visit the image of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo Church, but this year saw a ‘reverse pilgrimage’ wherein replicas were brought to various churches in the city. 

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A devotee holding a palm-sized replica of the Black Nazarene raises his hands in prayer to the blessed image. Photo: Alecs Ongcal

Those who chose to still visit Quiapo Church had to stand a meter apart from each other, both inside and outside the church. This was monitored through foot markers that also helped organizers keep track of how many people were entering the area. Those below 15 years old and above 65 years old were not allowed to attend mass inside and face masks and face shields were available in the church. People were required to fill in contact tracing sheets and authorities conducted temperature checks. 

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A church volunteer enforces a 1 meter physical distancing rule by holding a picket sign. Photo: Alecs Ongcal

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A member of the Hijos del Nazareno (Sons of the Nazarene) sprays disinfectant before the next batch of devotees arrive. Photo: Alecs Ongcal

The areas inside and around the church were sanitized after every mass and volunteers walked around offering alcohol to devotees.

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Drummers on the streets of Manila. Photo: Alecs Ongcal

The beating of drums usually invites people to pour over to the streets in a festive celebration. This year, members of the Pwersa ng Batang Quiapo Mendoza played their drums with restrictions. 

“We would usually parade around Quiapo but now, we can't leave our street. We can’t participate in the procession, but we can still beat our drums, this is our devotion,” John Kier, a drummer from the group told VICE.

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Officers of the Philippine National Police on standby during masses. Photo: Alecs Ongcal

About 6,000 police personnel were deployed in the area, setting up 29 control points outside Quiapo Church. Medical, sanitation, and other security units were also present. A large number of pilgrims flocked to Quiapo Church to attend the first masses, balling up to a large crowd. As soon as the first mass started, the crowed dispersed. People exited the area after each religious service and did not linger. 

But some devotees chose to skip tradition this year and, instead, practice their faith privately. 

“I’ll just pray, God will understand.”

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Lourdes San Jose, a devotee of 40 years, spends a peaceful morning with her family. Photo: Alecs Ongcal

“We don't need a large crowd to be happy. Our family is enough,” Lourdes San Jose, a devotee of 40 years, told VICE. “We’re in a special situation right now, we’re in a pandemic, we can sacrifice the procession. But if the pandemic is over, we need to practice our faith traditionally.”

She said that she was scared to contract the virus and was worried for her daughter, Michelle, and her grandkids. Instead, they planned for a simple meal at home and prayed with family. 

“We’re here, and we’re happy,” she said. “I’ll just pray, God will understand.”