Since March 16, all of Luzon, including Manila, has been placed under an “enhanced community quarantine” order. No one (with some exceptions) can enter or leave Manila. Fr Mark Grima and Fr Bernard Falzon, who were here, had to leave earlier than planned to make it out of the country in time.
It was a tense moment. Among other things, this meant that our two communities cannot interact physically and the only way to support one another is through the social media or a phone call.
In Bataan, there is Fr Joe Cremona, Fr Martin Galea, Bro Marco and an aspirant, together with a Maltese couple who had initially come to spend a few weeks doing voluntary work – a few weeks which have now unexpectedly changed into a few months!
In New Manila, meanwhile, there are only eight of us at present – for various reasons, rather less than usual. There’s me, Hector and Fr Mark Demanuele; Linh and Rush, our two prenovices; Beng, one of our lay MSSP members; Francis, a discerner and a Vietnamese guest priest who is learning English.
To tell the truth, I was starting to panic at first. How were we going to survive weeks inside the house, without ministry, and living like cloistered monks? In the first weeks of the lockdown, we had time to share together as a community and all of us expressed similar feelings of insecurity.
As days passed, we could see this fear turn to hope and to see good fruit also emerge from the pandemic. It is an experience which is bringing us closer together. We feel the unity among us more acutely. We tended to take each other for granted before, while those who were frequently out of the house for pastoral duties did not participate so fully in daily community gatherings. Now, however, everyone is doing house chores and trying to give a helping hand.
Our beloved cook, Ate Nora, had to stay home from the very first day of the quarantine, so we are taking it in turns to cook. When someone lacks a natural talent for cooking others step in to help. We have been doing this for more than three weeks now and we haven’t cooked the same meal twice so far. We also spend more time around the table nowadays – there’s no hurry! We’ve drawn up a schedule for cleaning the house and everyone does his own laundry.
Praying together is the heart of this experience for me. Apart from the liturgy of the hours, we added community rosary at four o’clock. Moreover we decided to share our Eucharist online so that our lay MSSP members and friends may participate with us – thus living this holy Lent in a deeper way. We managed to do this even though Martin, our resident computer wizard, is away in Bataan. The feedback from those joining us has been very encouraging and this gives us greater motivation to continue. Finally, we are recording a reflection on the daily gospel every day which we transmit on social media. Our brothers in Bataan have joined this recording schedule. I really feel this unity in evangelization – this communion for mission – as our MSSP motto urges us to live and work.
Fr. Mark and Beng are in charge of doing the shopping. They are very careful when they go out and observe the guidelines to reduce the risk. Shopping centres have strict controls in place as in many countries, so shopping has become very time-consuming. However, we find help as well. There’s a guy who works in the vegetable market and facilitates our vegetable shopping. We give him the shopping list. He goes around to buy and then waits for our van, loads everything in and we don’t have to get out of the car.
Sometimes the shopping is huge since we are also buying goods for the people living in the depressed area of 13th Street. The situation is hard there. The people are forced to stay inside, in very small, sweltering rooms. As in many poor countries, if one is unable to go out to work, one gets no money and so no food. In normal times, these people spend their daily wages just to get enough food. We have been trying to help them by buying food and distributing it among them. In this way, we have already helped already around 230 families and distributed about 2 tons of rice. We do not just give them canned goods but also vegetables, which are healthier. There are other congregations around who are also giving some help. So, in coordination with them, we try to alleviate the hardship of so many families. We are also contributing to buy milk for babies and toddlers so that they can remain healthy.
I am so glad that all this help we are giving, is coming out of a communitarian spirit. I am so grateful to God that this epidemic, although destructive by nature, has served to bring us closer together.
One other miracle – the air has never been so clean in Manila. You can now see the stars clearly at night, breath fresh air and feel the breeze. Even though this is the hottest part of the year, one can bear the heat even during the day and move around without feeling suffocated as before.
Personally, I think that the world is healing itself from another virus: the damage mankind has done to nature. While humanity is trying to bring things to normal and find a cure for Covid19, I believe the world and nature are also trying to do the same and start breathing again. I hope we can learn and continue to heal not just human beings from Corona virus, but also the world with pro-environment decisions.
I wish all our members will be united in spirit as we live through this strange time with hope, unity and love. Living the paschal mystery in this environment will surely be different but I believe it will bear good fruit.
Fr Stephen Mifsud is a Maltese MSSP missionary based in our community in Manila, Philippines.