MANILA, Philippines – Msgr. Hernando “Ding” Coronel compares the Facebook page of the Quiapo Church, formerly known as the Small Basilica of the Black Nazarene, to Netflix.
The site has three million followers and offers fresh content, including hours of live online masses, forums, and daily community prayers of the Rosary.
“Every time you open the page there is an online fair. If you scroll down you will see other content. We even have memes to remind believers [of religious feasts and other occasions]”Says Coronel.
The Church’s online masses garner up to 27,000 views on a first Friday as followers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus listen. Imagine the hits during Christmas and Holy Week.
Overseas viewers make up a significant proportion of the audience. In the comment area for Coronel’s 4 o’clock mass, Filipino expats, professionals and workers from different time zones from New Jersey to Germany vote in his sermon or type in praise and petitions.
The Quiapo Church broadcast its online masses live even before the outbreak of the pandemic.
After the government ordered all churches to close in March 2020 when the first lockdown was imposed, news spread that masses are easily accessible on the internet.
“My Masses used to have only 2,000 views and we only had a million followers,” Coronel recalls.
Coronel holds a PhD in Leadership Studies from Ateneo de Manila University and has worked for Radio Veritas and the Media Office of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).
He understands the effect of images and how they can be used to attract and hold the attention of believers attending online masses. He gleefully admits that he takes some hints about visual appeal and the power of attitudes from Korean dramas.
“We have to adapt to our new situation or die like the dinosaur,” says Coronel. “You can’t be like C-SPAN with an immobile person on screen. So we put graphics on the screen, like photos of the saints whose feasts we are celebrating. “
Most of the “likes” are “Mama Mary’s on Mother’s Day and St. Joseph’s on Father’s Day,” he says. “The answers and songs are displayed on the screen for people to sing along to. A priest summarizes the points of his sermon so that people will be reminded. “
As an allusion to attractive K-drama settings, fresh flowers always adorn the altarpiece and Coronel had its edges painted with gold leaf. The effects on the screen are undeniable.
And to make the message more understandable, the priests of the Quiapo Church use Filipino during mass. Coronel even inserts poems he composed for his sermon.
Coronel keeps an eye on the number of views and comments from Internet users “to see what works and what doesn’t”.
He is aware that other churches do not have as many online followers, which is why the Quiapo Church is cross-cutting other parishes’ online masses to help them attract viewers. (It is said that priests sometimes argue with each other over the number of calls their masses collect online.)
NS. Robert Bañas of the Resurrection of Our Lord Parish (ROLP) in BF Homes Parañaque is fortunate to receive 60 calls during a mass. (The parish’s Facebook page had 1,764 followers as of August 27th.)
According to Bañas, many of his parishioners prefer the online masses held by Quiapo Church or Manila Cathedral, which has over 803,000 devotees.
“It is more important that people listen to the mass, also online, also in other communities,” he says. In addition, ROLP’s online masses are also posted by other churches in the Parañaque diocese.
Catholic churches in other countries have noticed the audience numbers at Quiapo Church. Coronel says he has received inquiries from Brazil and India from fellow priests asking him to post their masses on Quiapo’s Facebook page.
But while the church’s online masses are a hit, Coronel says it is difficult to speak to empty benches.
“Unlike a face-to-face fair where you can read people yawning… it’s hard to tell whether people are interested or bored when you go online. You wonder if someone is really listening, ”he says.
Quiapo Church holds 14 masses on Fridays, and Coronel makes it a point to celebrate the earliest at 4am (“to set the tone”) and the last at 9pm (“to close”).
The 62-year-old has noticed that some believers still expect him to be in high energy mode during an online night mass.
NS. Douglas Badong, one of the Quiapo Parish Vicars, says the restriction imposed by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) has been particularly harsh on older believers.
“We consider them to be traditionalists who prefer to be physically present to see the image of the Nazarene up close so that they can touch and kiss it. Before the pandemic, I saw some crying in front of the picture, ”he says.
Badong says that some believers have complained that people in the wet market and shops directly in front of the church are free to “but cannot pray inside, even for a short time.”
“As a priest, I am also affected when I hold an online mass and see people pressing against the steel railing of the church to take a look at what is happening while the church itself is empty,” he says.
ROLP’s Bañas makes a similar observation: “We have a group of older women who helped as lecturers and collectors during the fair and then went to Jollibee to chat until lunch. The IATF restriction, which forbids them to attend the fair, has changed all that. “
In separate interviews, Badong and Bañas note increasing incidences of depression among believers because masses are held online.
“You have nowhere to go and no one to talk to,” Badong explains. “Even the sacrament of confession is not allowed, so that people have nowhere to unload. Sometimes the simple act of [stopping at] the church helps a lot on the way to work. But now the church is closed; Where you go?”
Last March, the CBCP asked the IATF to allow 10 percent attendance during Holy Week in all churches in the quarantine bubble, which included Metro Manila and the provinces of Bulacan, Rizal, Cavite and Laguna.
The IATF eventually eased the restrictions, allowing once-a-day gatherings of 10 percent capacity from April 1-4, the last days of Holy Week.
Now public masses remain banned in all Catholic dioceses in Metro Manila and the provinces of Bataan and Laguna. The bishops of the Archdiocese of Manila and the Dioceses of Cubao, Novaliches, Pasig, Parañaque and Caloocan have encouraged the faithful to stay at home.
The absence of churchgoers does not mean a gathering of the believers.
For this reason, churches have set up online payment accounts that parishioners can use to make donations. At the end of each mass, the churches display the QR codes (Quick Response) of their online accounts to help people who want to donate.
Online donations go a long way in keeping Quiapo Church’s outreach programs up and running, Coronel says. And online fairs are also a place to let believers know where their donations have gone.
Would online trade shows become the norm?
Coronel says: “Everyone now has a cell phone and times have changed, we need a paradigm shift. What we do on social media is based on solid data. It’s analytics now. You have to process [data] make a decision.”
Addressing believers’ needs and issues will always be a priority when it comes to social media, Coronel says, adding, “Content is something I care about every day. We have to be forward-looking. The key is to answer your deepest yearnings. People look for empathy, sincerity, authenticity, commitment. People’s concerns concern 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 a reason. ‘ You must appreciate the perspective of love between a devotee and God. This is your source of hope. ‘”- With a report by Arianne Suarez, Inquirer Research
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