The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has called for greater public health vigilance in the wake of the new coronavirus pandemic.
“We need to take all of these seriously,” read a circular released by the bishops after the government declared a public health emergency amid a rise in new coronavirus cases.
“We have already issued some guidelines in the recent past on the matter but we need to respond to the situation now in consistent efforts together,” said the church leaders.
The Philippines has recorded 49 cases of new coronavirus, including two deaths. Globally, there have been over 118,000 cases recorded in 114 countries, with 4,291 deaths.
Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao, president of the bishops’ conference, called on his fellow prelates to be discerning in their actions as authorities have called for a suspension of large public gatherings.
“In the face of this worldwide pandemic we are demanded to exercise vigilance as a Church, lest our churches become venues of transmission of the disease,” he said.
The Catholic bishops’ conference has recommended several precautionary measures, including discouraging the sick from attending Mass and other church activities.
“Taking the basic steps of wellness as recommended by the health authorities is not only sensible, but wise and considerate of others,” said Archbishop Valles.
He said the elderly and those with compromised immune systems might want to consider viewing Mass via television or online.
The prelate urged local churches to disinfect and sanitize liturgical spaces after every service and place hand sanitizer near church entrances.
Reception of communion by hand should be implemented, while priests and lay ministers must wear face masks when giving the sacrament.
Water fonts at church entrances should be emptied and protective cloth should be installed in confessionals.
Instead of churchgoers passing donation boxes around, collectors should brings bags around to congregants.
Archbishop Valles also reiterated an earlier reminder for Catholics to refrain from kissing and touching sacred images and statues.
No to Manila lockdown
Meanwhile, Bishop Broderick Pabillo, apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Manila, has disagreed with a proposal to lock down Manila.
The bishop said it might be an effective way to prevent the spread of the virus, but it is impractical for ordinary Filipinos.
“How will they survive,” the prelate asked.
Metro Manila, the Philippine capital, has a population of 12.8 million according to 2015 census data, while the city of Manila has a population of 1.78 million.
Bishop Pabillo said that many people earn a monthly income by selling goods.
“If we will have a lockdown, how will they eat,” he asked.
The country’s health minister has earlier said that the government could impose “localized lockdowns” when the alert level is raised to Code Red Sublevel 2.
The highest alert level is raised when there is sustained community transmission beyond the capacity of the government to trace cases of the virus.
The Philippines is currently under Code Red Sublevel 1.
Proactive measures in churches
Several bishops in dioceses across the country have also released pastoral letters urging people to take steps to keep new coronavirus from spreading in their communities.
Apart from reminding people to pray, Bishop Honesto Ongtioco of Cubao in the suburb of Quezon City called on residents to heed public health advisories.
He also ordered the suspension of recollections, retreats, pilgrimages, Stations of the Cross, prayer meetings, and mass confessions during the Lenten season.
The bishop, however, encouraged priests to make the Sacrament of Penance more frequently available.
“Let us do our part in promoting positivity by avoiding the spread of unverified news and information which may cause panic and useless anxiety,” said Bishop Ongtioco.
“Let this trial, like the many challenges we have faced as a nation, bring out the best in each of us — as Filipinos and as Christians,” he added.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan has asked members of his archdiocese to maintain their faith during the pandemic.
In a pastoral message, the prelate said that the “first combat gear against all sickness is prayer.”
“Remember always — God has powers beyond the human sciences,” he said, adding that the reported spread of the virus is an invitation for “greater prayer and more penance.”
“Be informed through media about the disease, but do not forget to pray. If you choose to stay at home, pray the rosary at home with the family. Do not let a day pass without family rosary,” he said.
Archbishop Villegas also asked Catholics to be wary and wise, saying that new coronavirus is not just attacking their physical health, but their spiritual health as well.
He further instructed priests to not let caution in these demanding times “numb us and leave us motionless in anxiety.”
“Neither can we be reckless as to ignore the mysterious disease,” he said. “We must heed the advice of scientists and medical experts,” said the prelate.