Before Easter Sunday, the television in my den was only for entertainment.
It was the same for the TV in my parents’ room, where I spent the summers of my formative years scrolling through the channels, looking for things to watch. While traversing the various programs, I would always encounter a channel that streamed a Catholic mass. Even at a young age, I remember thinking that it was strange for a religious service to be streamed at all.
An on-screen mass is bereft of a physical community, which I find accounts for a lot of my Catholic experience. My belief in God also means my belief in His people, and without seeing them nor being able to greet them, the majority of my faith experience would feel hollow. At least that’s what my nine-year-old self thought.
My family has gone to mass every Sunday for as long as I can remember. The first time I remember ever going to church, we sat on a row of monoblock chairs facing the altar. I spent most of the mass wondering about the room behind it, watching the altar boys going in and out. I asked my mom if that was where the priest lived, if it had a kitchen.
We hardly missed mass. My parents are devout Roman Catholics who are fond of tradition like their parents, and their parents. Whether this tradition was about raising their kids as Catholics or merely adhering to a weekly routine, I’m not sure—but they were rigorous and sincere in their efforts to bring us closer to God. My parents respect Him—or, again, the tradition of practicing this respect—so much that even when we’re traveling, we make a point to go to church.
The week before quarantine was declared, my parents declared that we should still go to mass. Although my siblings and I were hesitant, we changed out of our house clothes. Despite the gravity of the pandemic, Manila was still teetering on the brink of a lockdown, all thanks to a government that had trivialized the virus’s effects and was overconfident in its ability to protect its citizens. Because of this, my family was left unsure of the pandemic’s implications.
We drove to the chapel in our village. I was half-expecting to see a crowd of churchgoers when we arrived, but the promenade was empty. The church was closed. For the next three weeks, my family and I spent our Sunday mornings at home, sleeping in.
Our first on-screen mass was on Easter Sunday.
For us Catholics, it’s a holy day of obligation, meaning we’re mandated to attend mass. My parents told us that we were going to stream one via Facebook and watch it on the television in the den. The live-stream was everything I expected it to be: unfulfilling, awkward, contrived. We sat on couches around the room, and the priest delivered his sermon to an audience he couldn’t see.
My siblings and I assumed we’d carry on with our mellow Sunday mornings after that; we assumed we’d only attended that particular online mass because it was a holy day of obligation. But following Easter, our parents informed us that we were going to stream a mass every Sunday morning.
At first, I was irritated. This was obviously a masturbatory show for their faith rather than an honest exercise of it, and what annoyed me more was how they were forcing us to engage in this self-preservative act with them. I’ve never been one to express my doubts about faith to my parents, knowing that my attempts at discourse might be seen as disrespectful. To most of the middle-aged Filipino Roman Catholics I know, questioning God is tantamount to renouncing belief in Him entirely.
Seven Sundays later, I found myself questioning the reasons for my annoyance and wanting to nurture a more meaningful relationship with God. Practicing religion during quarantine has helped me realize that my practices of faith were often tools for self-preservation. I sang the hymns at church only when I knew my parents were watching, and at school, I took my Bible reflections seriously only when they were graded. To say I’ve become a stronger believer in this time of turmoil is to admit that I use belief as a crutch with which to cope—that this strengthening of a bond between me and the Lord was instigated by a desire to cling on to a concrete symbol of assurance.
Faith constitutes a symbiotic relationship. I would even argue that God is on the shorter end of it, giving us ten times what we can give Him as humans. Watching mass is difficult in quarantine because it entails a confrontation with the commitment it takes to be in this relationship. A commitment that’s easy to feign in a church filled with a hundred believers.
I’m just now realizing that what I was doing at church for most of my life was pretending. I was so focused on being perceived as religious that my actual belief was swept aside entirely. At its most core, mass is a tender form of surrender—a conversation with the Lord. Maybe I always knew that I wasn’t as devoted as my parents expected me to be, that I started seeking validation from other churchgoers. But without them to perceive me in the comfort of our home, I was urged to look deeper into my faith. Without an audience, all that was left was me, and God, and the invitation to reexamine, relearn, and receive His grace willingly.
By Ticia Almazan
Visual by Vy Nguyen