Yearender: The Catholic Church in 2020: Keeping faith from a distance

Published December 28, 2020, 7:50 AM

by Leslie Ann Aquino

  • The pandemic closed churches and cancelled many traditional religious activities like the Holy Week ceremonies, the feast day procession of the Our Lady of La Naval in October, and the Grand Marian procession in December.
  • For weddings and baptisms, only a limited number of people were allowed.
  • When the quarantine restrictions were eased, churches could only allow the faithful to fill 30 percent of its capacity. 
  • Senior citizen were not allowed inside church premises.
  • For Simbang Gabi and the midnight Christmas Eve Mass, people practiced health protocols — wore face masks, face shields and kept a social distance.
  • Sunday Holy Masses were held online.

Religious activities were put on hold in 2020, with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdowns and quarantine restrictions closing church doors and cancelling traditional religious rites. 


Among those cancelled were the Holy Week ceremonies, Feast Day procession of the Our Lady of La Naval in Quezon City last October, and the Grand Marian procession in Intramuros held early December.

Since there was no procession, the image of the Our Lady of La Naval was brought outside the patio of the Sto. Domingo Church for the “Dungaw” to allow the people to venerate the Our Lady from a distance.

Early in 2020, all forms of religious activities related to Holy Week were not allowed and the faithful followed the ceremonies over digital media. 

When quarantine restrictions were eased, churches opened but allowed only a limited number of people to attend Holy Masses or to do private prayers.  However, senior citizens were not allowed to enter churches as per advisory of the Inter Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emergence of Infectious Diseases. This led churches to recruit younger parishioners to volunteer to serve as most volunteer church workers are senior citizens.

When churches reopened, parishes made sure that health protocols were strictly implemented such as the wearing of face masks, face shields and social distancing.

Markers were placed on benches or pews to indicate where the faithful should sit when they attend religious services to observe social distancing. Also, markers were placed on the floor to indicate where the faithful should stand in line to receive Holy Communion.

Before entering the churches, one had to go through a thermal scanner, foot bath and hand sanitizer, all placed at the entrance of the churches.

At the Holy Mass, gestures, like holding hands during the “Our Father,” kissing or shaking hands for the “Peace be with you,” and the Holy Communion given by the priest are not practiced anymore.  

Religious ceremonies like baptisms, weddings and funerals allowed only a very limited number of participants, taking away the sense of community those rites bring. Baptism and funerals were limited to the immediate family members and to a pair of godparents, while wedding rites only have the bride and groom, parents of the couple, and a pair of sponsors.


The COVID-19 infections did not spare the clergy. A number of bishops tested positive for the disease and have recovered, among them Ilagan Bishop David William Antonio, Archdiocese of Manila apostolic administrator Bishop Broderick Pabillo, retired Caloocan Bishop Deogracias Iniguez and former Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle.

The year 2020 also saw the demise of some of the known personalities in the church.

Anti-gambling crusader retired Lingayen Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz passed away due to multiple organ failure caused by a serious case of COVID-19.

Father Fernando Suarez, known as the healing priest, and Fr. Sonny Ramirez, one of the founders of the Oasis of Love Charismatic Community, both died of a heart attack.

Good news

In 2020, the goods news for the Catholic Church was the appointment of a new papal nuncio to the Philippines and the elevation of Filipino prelate to the cardinalate.

Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Charles John Brown last September replacing Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, who now heads the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission in the United Nations in New York. Brown arrived in the country late November.

In October, the pontiff named Capiz Archbishop Jose Advincula as one of the 13 new cardinals and recently appointed him as member of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy.

And in December, Puerto Princesa Palawan Bishop Socrates Mesiona was also reappointed by the Pope as one of the new members of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.The prelate served as member of the Vatican department for evangelization from 2014 to 2019.

Unwavering faith

Father Jerome Secillano, CBCP Public Affairs Committee executive secretary, said the year 2020 was “challenging” for everyone but it also showed the people’s unwavering faith in God.

“We may have been terribly battered from the onslaught of COVID-19 but we have shown resiliency and fortitude that are more than enough to make us wait patiently for the good things that lie ahead,” he said.

“People have trooped back to churches for Simbang Gabi which may have been a good indicator of Filipinos’ reliance on God’s mercy and generosity,” he said.

“It tells us that people’s belief in the almighty is unwavering. And it is a recognition of people’s faith that in God’s time this pandemic will eventually be defeated.” he said.


For 2021, the Church had already announced the cancellation of other church activities.

The traditional procession of the Black Nazarene scheduled in January 2021 is one of these activities as mass gatherings are not allowed to prevent the spread of the virus.

The Feast of the Black Nazarene every January 9 is highlighted by a procession of the image which starts at the Quirino Grandstand in Luneta to the Quiapo Church, passing through many streets.  With the thousands of devotees joining the procession, the pace is slow and takes more than 10 hours to complete the route.  But that will not happen this year. 

Instead, there will be more Masses said at the Quiapo Church where the Traslacion 2021 will be held.

No “pahalik” (kissing of the image) will be held but instead there will be a “pagpugay” or “pagtanaw” (viewing) of the image.

The pilgrim image of the Nazarene will be brought up on the balcony of the church fronting Plaza Miranda two weeks before the actual Feast Day so people will have more time to venerate.

The “pahalik” is usually held at the Quirino Grandstand in Manila a day before the feast day.

Some Sinulog-related activities in Cebu City for the Feast of the child Jesus in January 2021 have also been cancelled.

These activities are the penitential walk with Jesus on the opening salvo, penitential walk with Mary on the last day of the Novena, traslacion of the images of the Santo Niño and our Lady of Guadalupe from Cebu City to Mandaue City, and from Mandaue City to Lapu-Lapu City; fluvial procession and the reenactment of the first baptism, planting of the cross, and first wedding; solemn foot procession, and proposed Cebu provincial pilgrimages.

Sinulog is an annual festival in honor of the Holy Infant Jesus held every January that draws a mammoth crowd of devotees and tourists to Cebu for religious and civic festivities.

Another activity of the church that will also be affected by the pandemic will be the Plenary Assembly of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) that will be held in January and July.

The Plenary Assembly was supposed to take place last July but it was cancelled due to the pandemic. The Plenary Assembly, which is the highest decision-making body of the CBCP, meets in regular session twice a year in January and in July. 

With the pandemic, the Catholic Church also decided to prolong by one year the quincentennial celebration of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines.

The supposed culminating activity in April 2021 would now be the launch of a year-long celebration that will end in April 2022.

The bishops agreed that the kick-off will be on April 17, an Easter Sunday, to commemorate the First Easter Sunday Mass in the country.

The National Historical Commission of the Philippines has earlier affirmed that the site for the historic Mass was held on Limasawa Island in Southern Leyte on March 31, 1521.

Originally set in April 2021, the bishops also moved the International Mission Congress (IMC) and the 2nd National Mission Congress to April 2022.

The National Retreat for the Clergy set on Aug. 4 to 6, 2021 has also been cancelled. Instead, the bishops’ Commission on Clergy will organize a series of conferences on the Church’s history in the Philippines.