PENTECOST SUNDAY: CELEBRATING PENTECOST IN THE TIME OF PANDEMIC

 

The world continues to reel from the negative impact of the covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic jolted and disrupted our “normal” life and caused unprecedented distress and hardships.

In the midst of the pandemic, we celebrate the Pentecost which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, the Blessed Virgin Mary and other followers of Jesus Christ while they were in Jerusalem celebrating the Feast of Weeks, as described in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:1–31). Pentecost also jolted and disrupted the disciples and ushered the beginning of the church. Pentecost transformed the followers of Christ from timid and fearful to bold and daring disciples.

On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down “like a strong driving wind,” and appeared as “tongues of fire”, and finally rested on each of the disciples. This emboldened the disciples and gave them the gift to speak in every language of all the people gathered at Jerusalem during that day.

The coming of the Holy Spirit marks the beginning of the church. Pentecost is our birthday as a church. This means that the church, as St. Luke has shown in the whole Acts of the Apostles, is a spirit-led church. Actually, the Acts of the Apostles could have been more appropriately called the Acts of the Holy Spirit: It was always the spirit who had the final say where the early church should go, what the church should do. In every major decision, the early church would listen to the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit the church could have fallen apart a long time ago.

Today the Spirit continues to lead us, to guide us. to shake us out of our complacencies, to disturb us out of our passiveness.  But do we listen? Are we like the early church who always sought the direction of the Holy Spirit, who discerned always where the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives and work?

In today’s chaotic world stricken by the covid-19 pandemic, the temptation for us and the church is to freeze in fear and be content solely with our own security and self-preservation. Another temptation is to go back to the old normal after the pandemic is over as if nothing happened and continue to rely on our human capacity and wisdom. These times calls for more solidarity of all people and discernment and reliance on the surprises and creativity of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit re-created the disciples. The Holy Spirit set the disciples on fire. Compare the apostles before and after Pentecost, oh what a difference the Spirit makes. From timid they became bold, from lethargic they became energetic  and from fearful they became courageous – all for the sake of the good news of Jesus.  As Pope Francis has said about the church of Pentecost, “She is a Church that doesn’t hesitate to go out, meet people, proclaim the message that’s been entrusted to her, even if that message disturbs or unsettles the conscience.”[1]

For all the chaos and suffering brought by the pandemic, there is hope. But only if we become bold in transforming our lives and listen to the promptings of the spirit. As Pope Francis reminds us, this contagion of infection with the Coronavirus can lead to a contagion of fear, of isolation, of ‘self-protection’. He calls us to welcome instead the ‘contagion’ of the Holy Spirit – a contagion of prayer and service, of solidarity and welcome.” We need discernment and openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Where is the movement of the spirit in this time of pandemic? How can we listen and discern the promptings of the spirit in this time of pandemic?

Despite the suffering and death caused by the pandemic, God will re-create the world through the Holy Spirit. “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Isaiah 43:18, Isaiah 43:19, Revelation 21:5, Isaiah 65:17, Ephesians 2: 15). As in the first Pentecost, we have in need now more of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In a prayer in preparation for the Second Vatican Council in 1962, Pope John XXIII prayed, “Renew Your wonders, O God, in our day — as in a new Pentecost!”

“Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful
and kindle in them the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created.
And You shall renew the face of the earth.”

 


 

[1] Pope Francis, By the Power of the Spirit the Church Astounds & Confuses,” Angelus, June 8, 2014

The 1st CoVid in the Shrine

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Did you know that before CoVid-19, there was another CoVid or coronavirus that hit the world and the Baclaran shrine? This happened in 2003. Perhaps, we can call this as CoVid-2002.

Covid-19  also known as SARS-CoV-2 is the second severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus pandemic to hit the world. If covid-19 is the second, then when was the first?

SARS-CoV-1 is the first severe acute respiratory syndrome which exploded on April 2003 in Asia and secondary cases elsewhere in the world. However, the outbreak began on 16 November 2002, in China’s Guangdong province, bordering Hong Kong.

Compared to Covid-19, SARS-CoV-1 was a very mild pandemic. The pandemic had a short span, which lasted from November 2002 to July 2003. A total of 8,098 people worldwide became sick with severe acute respiratory syndrome that was accompanied by either pneumonia or respiratory distress syndrome (probable cases), according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Of these, 774 died. By late July 2003, no new cases were being reported, and WHO declared the global outbreak to be over.[1]

SARS-CoV-1 affected the services at the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in April 2003.  Unlike Covid-19, however, services at the shrine continued; the shrine was never closed. I remember this, as I was rector of the shrine during this time. The Redemptorist community taking heed of the calls by the WHO and the Department of Health especially in crowded areas including the church, has implemented some precautionary measures in the Shrine.

The first measure to be introduced was the reception of communion by hand.  This was implemented in the last week of April.  In the first week of May, the community received a circular from the Diocese of Parañaque which further spelled out the precautionary measures which needs to be done in the churches.

“Added to the precautionary measures from the Department of Health (DOH), the Diocese strongly recommended and advised the following for temporary implementation:

  • Refrain from, or better still stop the folk religious practice of wiping hankerchiefs on and/or kissing images and statues.
  • Besamanos or the kissing of hands, especially of priests, should be abandoned.  Other forms of showing respect may be used.  Joining hands at the Our Father is also to be discontinued.
  • Face to face confession should be avoided.  The use of the confessional may even be riskier for both priest and penitents.  Confession is to be done not in a confined space but in an open one, side by side with the penitent and at some comfortable distance.
  • We will avail of communion in the hand only.  The value of this shift in practice cannot be overemphasized.  We recommend that ushers station themselves by the communion line to remind communicants and to see to the proper reception of the Eucharist in this manner.”

Taking heed of this circular, the community temporarily suspended confession inside the confessional boxes on April 30, 2003 – which was difficult being a Wednesday.  The community instead celebrated the third rite of common celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation spread in between several masses and novenas throughout the day.  For the daily confessions, the face-to-face box at the corner of the church was opened, without turning the air condition on and a table was placed between the penitent and the confessor.   Prayers for divine intervention on SARS was inserted in the novena prayers during Wednesdays and in the intercessions during Sundays.

As expected there were varied reactions to the measures.  Some people did not take the measures seriously as they went their usual practice.  Others continued to wipe and kiss the images of saints in the church.  Even during the communion at hand there were some who insisted on receiving communion through the mouth.  Some complained that their monthly devotion was interrupted because they were not able to go to individual confession.  They would not accept any explanation even as they were told that these are just temporary measures owing to the extra-ordinary situation.

On the other hand, there were also those who understood the necessity of precautionary measures.  Some were appreciative of the response the church has made to this situation.  Others went beyond SARS by emphasizing the need for cleanliness, personal hygiene, healthy living and caring for the environment with or without SARS.

Perhaps, we don’t have to wait for another CoVid in the future. After Covid-19 is all over we should learn all the hard lessons. We cannot go back to the old normal. Radical changes is needed for both our individual lifestyles and the bigger socio-politico-economic system in the world.

 


 

[1] “Frequently Asked Questions About SARS,” Center for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC.gov accessed 5 May 2020 at https://www.cdc.gov/sars/about/faq.html