The Filipino Catholic faithfuls were reminded to strictly follow health and safety protocols as the traditional nine-day dawn masses in anticipation of Christmas Eve is set to kick off on Tuesday evening.
“Simbang Gabi,” a devotional series of masses observed by Catholics from December 15 to 23 in the evening or December 16 to 24 at dawn, will be practiced in two ways this year due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Churches will be physically open but the public is mandated to practice minimum health and safety protocols to minimize the risk of catching the virus.
Virtual versions of the masses will also be available on the Facebook and YouTube pages of different churches such as the Manila Cathedral, the Diocesan Shrine of Jesus the Divine Word and the Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral, among others.
Those who opt to physically attend the mass are expected to observe safety guidelines set by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID).
In line with this, Filipinos reminded their fellow faithful to practice the protocols as they observe the traditional masses amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Simbang Gabi will start later, hope everyone will consider not just the social distancing but also live streaming. Stay safe and keep your faith burning,” a Twitter user said with a smiling emoji.
“OOMFS (one of my followers) that will attend Simbang Gabi, stay safe, wear mask, and social distancing!! Take care,” another online user tweeted with an emoticon.
A software development company likewise reminded the public to observe the government and CBCP-imposed protocols for the activities.
“Simbang Gabi starts tomorrow, December 16. Health protocol is reminded as we physically attend the dawn masses. Merry Christmas!” ACLT Computing said on Tuesday.
The CBCP has recommended for churches to start the “Simbang Gabi” as early as 6 p.m. for the anticipated mass and for the morning masses to be held at 6 a.m.
The traditional nine-day masses are usually held from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m.
For the Vigil Mass on December 24, it may be held from 6 p.m. while the dawn mass may be celebrated in the early morning of December 25.
Churchgoers are expected to wear face masks and face shields as well as practice strict physical distancing or staying at least one-meter apart, which is nearly equivalent to a motorcycle’s length.
“These adjustments are applicable only during this time of the pandemic. These adjustments are done because of the great number of mass-goers during the Simbang Gabi, and the limitations in the number of mass-goers due to the strict social distancing demanded by the IATF as a safety protocol in the prevention of the spread of the virus,” CBCP said on its website.
It has also instructed bishops and priests to comply with the limited number of people allowed inside the church during religious services, depending on the community quarantine level in their respective areas.
“The bishop of the place, in consultation with the pastors of the parishes and in coordination with the LGU, could schedule more Simbang Gabi masses in different venues, which can be large enough to accommodate more people and still observe social distancing,” the CBCP added.
Churches can only accommodate up to 30% of its venue capacity in areas under the general community quarantine (GCQ). Those under the less strict modified GCQ can accommodate up to 50% of its venue capacity.
CBCP also advised the churchgoers to bring their own image of the Infant Jesus since the “kissing or touching of images is still prohibited during this time of the pandemic.”
Meanwhile, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III urged people, especially senior citizens and people with underlying medical conditions, to virtually attend the masses instead to avoid the risk of contracting COVID-19.
“With our current pandemic situation, any large gathering of people is considered a risk to one’s health,” he said.
CBCP vice president and Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David likewise encouraged those restrained by poor health to virtually attend the masses instead.
He also said that the Church should take advantage of modern technology to spread God’s message.
Catholic television channel TV Maria will air “Simbang Gabi” at 4:30 a.m. on the first day of the nine-day Eucharistic celebration and at 5:30 a.m. on succeeding days.
Other churches will stream their masses on their respective Facebook and YouTube pages.
The “Simbang Gabi” is traditionally celebrated by the faithful nine consecutive days before Christmas. The last mass observed is called “Misa de Gallo.”
It started in the Spanish colonial period when Roman Catholicism was introduced in the country.
The “Simbang Gabi” was set to initially allow farmers to hear mass early in the morning before going to the fields.