Homeless people and urban poor dwellers joined the ritual washing of the feet on Holy Thursday in the Philippine capital Manila amid a lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The ritual is traditionally done during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper when the Catholic Church remembers the Last Supper of Jesus before which he washed the feet of his apostles.
Religious rites and rituals are, however, cancelled this year in predominantly Catholic Philippines due to the “enhanced community quarantine” to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.
Divine Word missionary priest Flaviano Villanueva washed the feet of homeless people in a temporary shelter as “a reminder that God will never forsake and forget us.”
“God wanted to let you know that despite your past, whatever you did before you were brought here, that He is not done with you yet,” the priest told the people during the celebration.
Father Villanueva said he was given permission by church leaders to hold the ceremony subject to quarantine protocols imposed by authorities.
“The world and faith seem to be lost and being lost is always associated with being homeless,” said the priest in his homily.
He said that involving homeless people in the ritual was “a good experience” to allow them to realize that “although they are physically homeless, someone calls them to come home.”
Across the capital, Carmelite priest Gilbert Billena also washed the feet of village leaders and church workers who are in the frontline in helping urban poor communities during the lockdown.
In a Holy Thursday ritual streamed online, Father Billena offered prayers for those who continue to help those most in need and those most affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Both Fathers Villanueva and Billena said that celebrating the Holy Eucharist was a “manifestation of God’s love” and that “He wants the homeless to fell that they are still part of the Church.”
Lorena Fortu, a 45-year-old street dweller, was among the “12 homeless apostles” whose feet were washed by Father Villanueva.
“I asked myself why me?” she asked. “Why am I seated here, why are my feet being washed?” She admitted that all her life she was asking if there is really a God.
“If there’s one, my parents would have not died when I was young and I would not be working in the streets since I was a child. If there’s a God, why would He give me all those problems?”
It was only when Father Villanueva invited her to live in a center for the homeless “when I learned how to pray and call onto Him.”
“I realized, He’s real and that everything happened for me to learn more about Him,” said Fortu.
“I’m crying because I feel overwhelmed realizing the second chance God has given me,” she told LiCAS.news.
Last month, Father Villanueva’s Arnold Janssen Kalinga Center opened its doors to serve meals to homeless people affected by the lockdown.
It was, however, closed by authorities due to alleged violations of quarantine protocols.
Following its closure, Catholic schools in the capital offered its facilities for the homeless under the care of the Divine Word missionary priest.
Father Villanueva said that when the pandemic is over, the program will find ways to seriously address the plight of street dwellers and provide them with second chances.
“We have done it before and again, if I can only save one life and free him or her from the streets, then I know it is still worth doing,” he said.
In his homily during the Holy Thursday celebration in Rome, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, cited the initiative of church people in Manila.
The cardinal narrated how he was touched by a photograph of a homeless woman trying to feed a homeless person in Father Villanueva’s temporary shelter.
Also on Holy Thursday, Pope Francis called on Catholic priests “to ask for forgiveness and to learn to forgive,” as he celebrated Mass in an empty St. Peter’s Basilica.
“Today, I wish to be close to priests, to all priests, from the most recently ordained to the pope,” he said. “Today, dear brother priests, you are all with me at the altar.”
He also remembered the “more than 60 priests in Italy” who “have given their lives” while “serving the sick in hospital, together with the doctors and nurses” in the midst of the pandemic.
The pope recalled priests who are living “in far distant places.” These are priests “who proclaim the Gospel in faraway places and die doing so,” he said.
Pope Francis also remembered the many priests who devote their lives to preaching the Gospel in the world’s rural or isolated areas, sometimes serving four or five parishes.