AFTER months of livestreaming mass to millions of faithful from behind closed doors, churches in the Catholic-majority Philippines are beginning to reopen.
But strict coronavirus rules mean worship is still far from normal, and the contagion spreading across the deeply religious country has forced churches to get creative to meet the spiritual needs of their congregations.
In the usually packed Baclaran Church in the capital Manila — which has the highest number of infections in the archipelago — temperature guns, hand sanitiser, contact-tracing forms and uniformed security guards greet the faithful wearing masks and plastic face shields.
Social distancing rules limit three people to pews that normally sit 10 and every second bench is left empty in the cavernous church where thousands of worshippers once flocked for mass.
Face coverings must be worn at all times — even when believers take the piece of bread given to them during the Holy Communion by a priest or minister who is not exempt from the protocols.
Holy water fonts — into which people used to dip their fingers to make the sign of the cross — are dry and covered with a white cloth.
Religious icons are in storage or behind fences to prevent people from touching and kissing them — a common practice believed to help cure the sick but that could now help spread Covid-19.
“It feels so strange,” said Rachel Mendioro, who is eight-months pregnant with her first child and is praying for a safe delivery.
“Seeing few people (inside the church) gives you a different vibe. It really tells you that the world is facing a problem right now.”
With churches in Manila limited to filling only 10 percent of their seating capacity and many still fearful of infection, online mass remains popular.
Services livestreamed on the Baclaran Church’s Facebook page receive as many as 50,000 views — a five-fold increase from before the pandemic.
Elsewhere in the country, drive-by communion services have been introduced and some priests are visiting the homes of their congregants to hear confession.
Forced to worship at home since March, when the country began a months-long lockdown, Rederacion Parina said she wept when she recently returned to Baclaran for the first time.
The 77-year-old walked the six kilometers (nearly four miles) from her home instead of taking public transport to save money for food.
She prayed for help to resolve her financial woes — increasingly aggravated by virus measures crippling the Philippine economy.
“My body is gaining strength when I go out (to visit the church)… I feel calm,” said Parina, lifting her face shield to wipe away tears.
“When I’m stuck at home… I feel like I’m nearing my end.”
Other churches have opted to hold their services entirely online until the health crisis eases.
Teejay Bagasbas, 51, and her family may have to wait until next year before they can attend a service at the conservative International Churches of Christ.
For now, they sit in their courtyard and watch the livestreamed version, taking communion using pre-packaged bread and grape juice made by local company Holy Cup, which has reported a three-fold increase in sales during the outbreak.
“If there is something good that is brought about by the pandemic (it) is that the church was brought into each other’s homes,” Bagasbas said.
But virtual worshipping is not for everyone.
“A lot of people… feel the connection is not as intense or not as real,” said Victorino Cueto, rector at the Baclaran Church.
The virus offers a new perspective on how people can practise their faith and the church should be quick to adapt to it, said Cueto.
“Covid has shaken all of us and faith is not immune from the whole process,” he said.
“Every crisis is an opportunity so I think the pandemic is asking us to reimagine what our faith is now.”