BY ROBERT ROQUE JR.
By now, the streets of the Philippines have come to life as early as 3 a.m. until Christmas Eve. The time-honored Filipino religious-cultural tradition of “Simbang Gabi” has rolled out. At least for the nine-day predawn masses, “stay-at-home” citizens can break free from the curfew hours and spill into the roads to church before the day awakes.
Upon the instruction of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), priests have prepared their parish communities well, reminding them to strictly abide by government-issued health protocols – wearing of face masks and shields and distancing one’s selves.
Seats and pews have been marked to implement the 30-percent capacity limit inside churches, and sanitation and disinfection routines have been upped a notch. I’ve heard that priests have shortened their sermons and limited the singing of hymns to further reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
Amid these laudable efforts to keep our unique and deeply-revered Filipino Christmas tradition above the reach of this pandemic, the painful truth is that infection control experts who study the odds would never tell you that congregating is safe.
The odds of catching the coronavirus and transmitting it are greater in uncontrolled environments. The risk increases with the more significant number of random people and common places one gets exposed to. And the reality is, that’s what confronts us. Throngs of the faithful and group-dating teenagers are likely to fill the plazas and the stalls lined up in the vicinity selling food and what-not.
Centers for disease control worldwide have the same warning and advice regarding parties this Yuletide. They’ve recommended get-togethers to be limited to 10 people and, if possible, held in an outdoor space where attendees who don’t normally live with each other are grouped in separate tables. The rule is: the more people involved, the greater the chances of infection.
I’m a Catholic faithful, and if it weren’t such a sin to turn people away from church – in the physical sense, in consideration of the pandemic – it’s quite easy to see the mathematical equation of how attending even just one religious service can be a formula for spreading the disease.
Now, multiply these risks by nine straight days of “Simbang Gabi”. I wish I could honestly say that we could leave all these worries to faith. I know in my heart that God allows us to separate faith and tradition when the situation calls for it.
Former health secretary Esperanza Cabral said last week that if you plan on a small family reunion for the holidays, then you’d better get your families isolated now. It’s the responsible thing to do two weeks before meeting up with other family members not living with you. It’s sound advice to ensure that each one attending that reunion had been cleared by self-quarantine.
But, if quarantine fatigue has hit you – like it has most of us – remember that the spirit of Christmas is here to save us. And we don’t find that spirit in the dressed-up malls, the sparkling lobbies of hotels, or even the church halls echoing of divine praises. That Child who is born our Lord and Savior and who protects us from all diseases is doing His saving work in our hearts.
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