Close to their flock, at a distance: Priests find ways to bless 'palaspas'
MANILA, Philippines – Clothed in his cassock and wearing a face mask, 59-year-old Archbishop Socrates Villegas stood on top of a van for around two hours – and in the heat of the April sun – as he held a giant cross adorned by palm fronds.
Villegas, head of the Archdiocese of Lingayen-Dagupan in Pangasinan, was joined by 3 other priests in driving through the streets of Dagupan City on Sunday, April 5.
It was Palm Sunday, the start of the Catholic observance of Holy Week. But this was a Holy Week like no other.
The Philippine island group of Luzon and many other parts of the country remain on lockdown due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, prompting the Catholic Church to suspend Masses and cancel Holy Week activities.
Palm Sunday was one of the rituals changed by the COVID-19 pandemic this year.
On Palm Sunday, Catholics usually bring to church palm fronds, called palaspas in Filipino, to recall the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem before his crucifixion and death. Priests later bless these palm fronds, which Catholics hang on their doors to symbolize blessings from God.
What changed this year was that priests no longer blessed the palm fronds in a sea of people, to comply with physical distancing rules to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
Instead, clergymen like Villegas held live online Masses without the physical presence of their parishes. On the same day, they rode their vehicles, went around their communities, and – at a distance from their flock – blessed the palm fronds either with holy water or a whispered prayer.
"We went to all streets where there are homes to assure them that God stays with His people," Villegas told Rappler on Sunday evening.
'Our lives are in the hands of God'
Villegas, in his online Mass on Sunday, earlier reminded his flock about their dependence on God.
"The virus has led us to the reality that we are helpless, that we have no control. We wanted to control governments, we wanted to control international politics, we wanted to control business and economics. Humans wanted to control humanity. We wanted to control the future, we wanted to control Mars and the moon. And then the virus renders all of us helpless," Villegas said in his homily.
"We have lost control," Villegas stressed. "We have lost control and it is a reminder for us that we really have no control, that control is an illusion. We have no control because our lives are in the hands of God."
Other priests who blessed palm fronds on Sunday include Father Gilbert Billena, a Carmelite priest who is outspoken against killings in President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. Billena went around the streets of Bagong Silangan, Quezon City, also on Palm Sunday, to bless the people's palm fronds and remind them of the presence of God.
"In times of uncertainty such as this, people need hope, they need something to hold on to, and that is why we are here, to strengthen their faith," Billena told Rappler.
Billena said priests like himself know the risks of such activities, but said they can perform their duties as long as they take proper precautions.
"This is not the time for us to be secure in our convents. This is the time for us to show the faithful what it means to serve the least of our brethren, to give ourselves to others, to inspire them to serve, to give them strength and support in this most difficult time. We have to tell them that the church is with them and is suffering with them," Billena said.
Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David explained that Palm Sunday finds new significance in the time of COVID-19, the disease that has hit more than 3,200 people and killed at least 152 in the Philippines alone.
Initially giving his flock some practical advice, David said on Sunday that "any leafy branch will do" for Palm Sunday, and that it is best for Catholics to "put it in a jar of water to keep it green for as long as possible." Then before the branch withers, he said, "put it on your door or your window."
David said, "Let it be a statement of hope: There is going to be new life, new creation, after COVID-19." – Rappler.com