MANILA, Philippines — Msgr. Hernando “Ding” Coronel compares the Facebook page of Quiapo Church, formally known as the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene, to Netflix.
The page has three million followers and offers fresh content, including live on-the-hour online Masses, forums, and community recitation of the rosary daily.
“Anytime you open the page, there is an online Mass. As you scroll down, you see other content. We even have memes to remind the faithful [of religious feasts and other occasions],” Coronel says.
The church’s online Masses gather as many as 27,000 views on a First Friday when devotees of the Sacred Heart of Jesus listen in. Imagine the hits during the Christmas season and the Holy Week.
Overseas viewers figure significantly in viewership. In the comments section on Coronel’s 4 a.m. Mass, Filipino expats, professionals, and blue-collar workers across different time zones from New Jersey to Germany chime in on his homily or type praise and petitions.
Quiapo Church has been livestreaming its online Masses even before the pandemic hit.
After the government ordered all churches closed in March 2020, when the first lockdown was imposed, word spread that the Masses are easily accessible on the web.
“My Masses used to have only 2,000 views and we only had one million followers,” Coronel recalls.
Coronel holds a doctorate in leadership studies from Ateneo de Manila University and worked at Radio Veritas and the media office of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).
He understands the impact of visuals and how these can be used to draw and hold the attention of the faithful attending online Masses. He gleefully admits that he takes a few pointers on visual appeal and the power of settings from Korean dramas.
“We have to adapt to our new situation or perish like the dinosaur,” Coronel says. “You can’t be like C-SPAN, with one immobile person on-screen. So we include graphics on-screen, like photos of the saints whose feasts we celebrate.”
The ones with the most “likes” are “those of Mama Mary posted on Mother’s Day, and of St. Joseph on Father’s Day,” he says. “The responses and songs are flashed on the screen so people can sing along. One priest summarizes the points of his homily so people are reminded.”
As a nod to attractive K-drama settings, fresh flowers always adorn the altarpiece and Coronel had its borders painted with gold leaf. The impact on screen is undeniable.
And to make the message more relatable, the priests of Quiapo Church use Filipino during the Mass. Coronel even injects poems that he composes for his homily.
Coronel keeps an eye on the number of views, as well as netizens’ comments, “to see what works and what doesn’t.”
He is aware that other churches do not have as many online followers, which is why Quiapo Church cross-posts the online Masses of other parishes to help them gain viewers. (It’s said that priests sometimes heckle one another on the number of views their Masses gather online.)
Fr. Robert Bañas of the Resurrection of Our Lord Parish (ROLP) in BF Homes Parañaque is lucky to get 60 views during a Mass. (The parish’s Facebook page had 1,764 followers as of Aug. 27.)
Bañas says many of his parishioners prefer the online Masses of Quiapo Church, or Manila Cathedral, which has over 803,000 followers.
“More important is that people listen to the Mass, even online, even in other parishes,” he says. Besides, ROLP’s online Masses are also cross-posted by other churches in the Diocese of Parañaque.
Catholic Churches in other countries have noted Quiapo Church’s viewership. Coronel says he receives requests from as far as Brazil and India, from fellow priests asking that he post their Masses on Quiapo’s Facebook page.
But while the Church’s online Masses are a hit, Coronel says talking to empty pews is difficult.
“Unlike in a face-to-face Mass where you can read people who yawn … it’s hard to gauge whether people are interested or bored when you go online. You wonder whether anyone is really listening,” he says.
Quiapo Church holds 14 Masses on Fridays, and Coronel makes it a point to celebrate the earliest at 4 a.m. (“to set the tone”) and the last at 9 p.m. (“to wrap it up”).
The 62-year-old has noticed that a number of the faithful still expect him to be on high-energy mode during an online night-time Mass.
Fr. Douglas Badong, one of Quiapo Church’s parochial vicars, says the restriction imposed by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) has been especially hard on older devotees.
“We consider them traditionalists who prefer to be physically present, to see up close the image of the Nazareno, so they can touch and kiss it. Before the pandemic, I’d see some crying before the image,” he says.
Badong says some devotees have complained that people can wander freely in the wet market and stores just outside the church, “but cannot pray inside even for a short while.”
“As a priest, I also get affected when I hold an online Mass and see people pressing against the church’s steel railing, for a glimpse of what’s happening, while the church itself is empty,” he says.
ROLP’s Bañas makes a similar observation: “We have a group of senior women who used to assist during the Mass as lectors and collectors, and then go to Jollibee to chat until lunchtime. The IATF restriction that bars them from attending the Mass changed all that.”
In separate interviews, Badong and Bañas note increasing cases of depression among the faithful because Masses are held online.
“They have nowhere to go and no one to talk to,” Badong explains. “Even the sacrament of confession is not allowed, so people have nowhere to unload. Sometimes, the simple act of [stopping at] the church on one’s way to work already helps a lot. But now the church is closed; where do they go?”
Last March, the CBCP asked the IATF to allow attendance at 10-percent capacity in all churches in the quarantine bubble that included Metro Manila and the provinces of Bulacan, Rizal, Cavite, and Laguna during the Holy Week.
The IATF eventually eased restrictions and allowed once-daily gatherings at 10-percent capacity from April 1 to April 4, the last days of the Holy Week.
Now, public Masses remain banned in all Catholic dioceses in Metro Manila and the provinces of Bataan and Laguna. Bishops of the Archdiocese of Manila and the Dioceses of Cubao, Novaliches, Pasig, Parañaque, and Caloocan have encouraged the faithful to stay home.
The absence of churchgoers means zero collection from the faithful.
For this reason, churches have created online payment accounts where parishioners can deposit cash donations. At the end of each Mass, churches display the QR (quick response) codes of their online accounts to aid people who wish to donate.
Online donations help greatly in sustaining Quiapo Church’s outreach programs, Coronel says. And online Masses are also a venue to inform the faithful where their donations went.
Would online Masses become the norm?
Says Coronel: “Everybody now has a cell phone and times have changed, so we need a paradigm shift. What we do on social media relies on solid data. It’s now analytics. You need to process [data] to make a decision.”
Addressing the faithful’s needs and issues will always be a priority when it comes to social media, Coronel says, adding: “Content is something I take care of every day. We must be forward-looking. The key is to answer the deepest longings. People are looking for empathy, sincerity, authenticity, engagement. People’s concerns are about health, family, work, matters of the heart.
“Why do people still want to go to Church? St. Thomas More said, ‘It is a matter of love. It is no longer reason.’ You have to appreciate the perspective of the love between a devotee and God. That is your source of hope.’” —With a report from Arianne Suarez, Inquirer Research
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