On the first in-person Sunday mass at the Manila Cathedral in six months, the celebrant, Father Kali Pietre Llamado, reminded the strictly physical distancing crowd of 80 worshippers to keep their face masks and face shields on, no matter how uncomfortable. He also greeted tens of thousands who were watching on Facebook and YouTube, including foreigners from Malaysia and Europe.
What started as a one-camera set up (with a smarpthone) at the onset of the lockdown in mid-March has evolved into a habit for Filipino Catholics and overseas viewers who needed a reliable livestream of the Holy Mass on Sundays, some of whom have pledged to visit the Philippines' Mother Church when world travel finally eases.
The online audience can swell to over 40,000 on Sundays at 8 a.m. Before COVID-19, the Manila Cathedral can accomodate as many as 2,500. With a virtual audience that is sixteen times bigger, why should masses still be held in person during the pandemic?
The Mass is a Sacrament
The Philippines is the bastion of Catholicism in Asia and nearly 8 in 10 of its 100 million people practice the faith. Filipinos are wired to receive at least six of the seven sacraments (you either get married or stay single or become a nun or priest). The mass is one of them, and there are rituals that can't be done purely online, said Father Reginald Malicdem, Rector of the Manila Cathedral.
Church rules now allow online masses due to the pandemic. But before COVID-19, only those who are sick or who care for the sick are spared from the obligation of going to mass on Sundays, Malicdem told reportr.
That is clear in the Vatican's teachings. Nothing compares to the physical presence. Virtual reality is not a substitute to the flesh and blood presence," Malicdem said. "Online mass helps us nourish our spirituality."
Even before the March lockdown, the Church has adjusted its rituals. On Ash Wednesday this year, which marks the start of Lent, ash was sprinkled on the faithful's heads instead of being painted on their foreheads.
Now, wedding parties have been shrunken down, brides are encouraged to wear face masks and cotton is used to apply holy oil instead of bare fingers.
Yes, even for the progressive Pope Francis
In his message for 2019 World Communications Day, Pope Francis acknowledged the power of the internet to amplify the Chruch's message. At the same time, he warned that it could be used for misinformation.
Malicdem said this meant that livestream masses could be used to rekindle the faith of Catholics as well as promote the religion.
Part of the Pope's message read: "The Net is an opportunity to promote encounter with others, but it can also increase our self-isolation, like a web that can entrap us."
Young people are the ones most exposed to the illusion that the social web can completely satisfy them on a relational level. There is the dangerous phenomenon of young people becoming social hermits who risk alienating themselves completely from society. This dramatic situation reveals a serious rupture in the relational fabric of society, one we cannot ignore," he said.
During his 2015 visit to the Philippines, Francis celebrated mass before tens of thousands, not in a church but on a stage, before typhoon-soaked survivors of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) two years prior.
Francis wore a yellow poncho like the rest of the faithful, telling them "I am here with you" as the crowd wept.
Livestream masses stay for now
As long as the pandemic requires people to stay at lest one meter apart, churches will still offer livestream masses, Malicdem said. At the Manila Cathedral, those in excess of the allowed capacity can hear the mass outside, on Plaza Roma.
"Even if there's a vaccine, it will take some time. We are foreseeing that early next year, people will still feel that it's not safe to go out. We will continue the online masses," he said.
Malicdem recalled how on the weekend that the lockdown was to take effect, the Manila Cathedral had to think fast. They set up a live stream with just a tripod and a cellphone. The entire mass was streamed in a single shot.
The succeeding weeks saw spotty connections interrupt the daily livestreams. Soon enough, viewers who also worked for telcos phoned him and offered to upgrade their connection speed, Malicdem said.
Now, the livestreams are shot using four cameras, with fade-ins and fade-outs that show parts of the cathedral that parishioners miss. Malicdem and Llamado, who alternate as mass celebrants, have also started wearing face masks since physical audeinces were allowed.
Contributions also continue to flow despite the suspension of collections during mass. No need to pull out your wallets for bills and coins, as in keeping with the pandemic, QR codes are flashed on the screen at the end of every livestream mass. Simply scan and donate.