By Rommel F. Lopez

While the end to the coronavirus pandemic is nowhere near in sight, civil and religious authorities find ways for their constituents to live life while observing strict health protocols to curb the spread of the deadly virus.

For Filipino Catholics, November is one of the usual months where family reunions are held at the cemetery or the columbarium where the mortal remains of their dear departed are resting.

But for this year, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, those usual gatherings at memorial parks won’t be seen for now after the Philippine government ordered the closure of all cemeteries, memorial parks and columbaria closed from Oct. 29 to Nov. 3 to avoid the large gathering of people and prevent the spreading of Covid-19.

Mauro Cardinal Piacenza (photo from

The Vatican responds to the pandemic restrictions

The Holy See, conscious of this situation in the Philippines and the rest of the world, issued a decree extending for the whole month of November the indulgences that can be acquired by visiting cemeteries and praying for the dead.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines indulgences (whether partial or plenary) “is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.”

It adds that an indulgence “removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin” and “may be applied to the living or the dead”.

Catholics have two traditional means of obtaining plenary indulgences for the souls every November. They may receive full indulgence each day from November 1 to November 8 when they visit a cemetery to pray for the departed and fulfilled other conditions, and when they go to a church or an oratory to pray for the faithful departed on November 2, All Souls’ Day.

On October 23, Mauro Cardinal Piacenza, Major Penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary, said that the new provisions were made after Roman Catholic bishops of the world requested the extension of plenary indulgence given the importance of the commemoration of the Feast of All Saints on November 1 and the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed or All Souls’ Day on November 2. He added that live-streamed Masses are beneficial for those individuals who cannot attend the Holy Mass physically.

“There is therefore a pursuit by the bishops to implement all possible solutions to bring people back to the Church, always respecting everything that needs to be done for the particular situation in which we unfortunately find ourselves,” Piacenza said.

The decree also encouraged greater accessibility of the sacraments to the faithful.

“For an easier attainment of divine grace through pastoral charity, this penitentiary earnestly prays that all priests endowed with the appropriate faculties offer themselves with particular generosity to the celebration of the sacrament of Penance and to administering Holy Communion to the sick,” he added.

With this decree, these plenary indulgences had been extended throughout the month of November to prevent large gatherings of people and help stop the spread of the coronavirus while highlighting the importance of the availing the sacraments in person by the laity.

How dioceses and parishes are observing Undas 2020

Back here in the Philippines, dioceses and parishes across the country have devised creative ways on how to make the observance of All Saint’s and All Soul’s Day, more commonly known in the Philippines as “Undas”, more memorable and meaningful even during a pandemic.

In the Diocese of Tagum, Bishop Medel Aseo directed that Masses in cemeteries will only be participated by maximum of 10 lay ministers who, later on, will help the priests bless the graves in the entire cemetery.

In the Diocese of Kidapawan, Bishop Jose Colin Bagaforo asked the faithful to come to Mass on November 1 and 2 where more Masses are made available to make social distancing possible inside the main churches, instead of the village chapels. Some parishes in the diocese have also streamed their Masses.

Bishop Broderick Pabillo, the apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Manila released a Pastoral Instruction for the observance of Undas in the archdiocese this year.

He encouraged to all to go to Church and attend Holy Mass to pray for the dead.  “All of us, living and dead, are united in the offering of Jesus in the Holy Mass,” Pabillo said.

“Our parishes will celebrate more Masses on those days to accommodate more church goers with proper physical distancing. Lighting of candles for the dead can also be done in areas provided by the parishes during the month of November. The lighting of candles is an external manifestation of our prayer.”

In the Archdiocese of Lingayen-Dagupan, Archbishop Socrates Villegas issued his own Pastoral Instruction for the archdiocese.

One of the directives is for the recitation of the Novena for the Poor Souls before the celebration of Holy Mass.  He also instructed all parish priests in the archdiocese to “visit the cemetery to bless the graves and tombs without making any announcement on the specific date so as not to unduly gather people to join the blessing.”

Instead of offering flowers and candles for the departed relative, which Villegas said “is recognized as religious inculturation”, the creeping hunger cause by the pandemic “should also encourage us to offer alms for the poor in the parish, to be used for feeding and giving out food relief packs.”

He then ordered each parish to organize an “alternative Undas” by giving food bags to the poor on October 27 in memory of the faithful departed.
“Almsgiving covers a multitude of sins and is beneficial for the souls in purgatory more than flowers and candles,” he said.

“We who are unable to visit the cemeteries pray that someday, we can join the saints in heaven. Our destiny is heaven not the grave,” he concluded.

While Villegas encouraged the donation of the money intended for flowers and candles, still some Catholics would prefer to light candles in their homes in memory of their beloved.  But for those who are unable to physically be at the graves of their loved ones to light a candle, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ (CBCP) Media Office revived Undas Online to accept prayer requests for the departed and light a candle, virtually.

Now on its 9th year, the CBCP Media office said the Undas Online was originally intended for Filipino seafarers and those in other countries who had no way of celebrating Undas.

The website initially highlighted an online facility to request for Masses for their beloved dead.  Now, it also has photos of different cemeteries along with a Google street view of the Manila North Cemetery to those who’d prefer a virtual experience of visiting the cemetery.

Aside from this, live online Masses from different places in the country will also be streamed. according to CBCP Media Office Director, Msgr. Pedro Quitorio III.

“One can even light a candle online while praying for their dear departed,” he said.

The Santo Niño de Paz Chapel in Greenbelt Mall also has a similar service called the “Wick From Home” where the faithful can virtually light a candle for their departed. The names of the departed can also be enrolled so they can be mentioned in the prayer intentions and remembered in the Holy Masses celebrated in the chapel.

Fr. Jun Sescon, Jr., chaplain of Santo Niño de Paz Chapel, said that aside from the programs mentioned, they will put a Prayer Station for the Dead at the chapel, where people can light a candle, pray before the crucifix and write the names of their departed.

He added that they are coordinating with the mall management to increase the number of Masses to be celebrated at the chapel.

“We will also have an online reflection series called Great Conversations at Greenbelt Chapel (GCc @GC) on The Last Things with Bishop Mylo Hubert Vergara speaking on October 30 about Purgatory,” he added.

Other confirmed speakers are Balanga-Bataan Bishop Ruperto Santos, Bayombong Bishop Jose Elmer Mangalinao, Bishop Broderick Pabillo and Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas.

Even with the restrictions, Fr. Sescon said this year’s Undas “will be a family celebration (at home & churches) rather than the usual gathering at the cemeteries” as it is the memory of the dead and their faith that binds family members together.

Line up of speakers for Great Conversations at Greenbelt chapel (from Fr. Jun Sescon)

In the Diocese of Cubao, catechists of the diocese are tying up with the Prayer Warriors of the Holy Souls and Most Holy Redeemer Parish (MHRP)– Araneta’s Social Communications Ministry in preparing a video series on the lives of the saints according to MHRP parish priest Fr. Jojo Zerrudo.

“One saint per day will be featured on our parish and hopefully diocesan [Facebook] pages. This is our alternative to the March of the Saints which cannot be held this year,” said Zerrudo who is also the diocese’s head for catechetical ministry.

The March of the Saints is an annual “anti-monsters and evil creatures” alternative to the Western style of celebrating Halloween initiated by Fr. Zerrudo who is also chaplain of the Prayer Warriors of the Holy Souls.  The annual march has been adopted by parishes and Catholic schools nationwide.

“The March of the Saints is a reclaiming of the Eve of all Saints Day (Halloween) for Christ. It really belongs to Christ because it is the beginning of All Saints’ Day, the feast of all who have washed their robes with the Blood of the Lamb,” said Fr. Zerrudo in a previous interview with CBCP News.

Zerrudo, who is also the exorcist of the diocese, emphasized that Catholic parents should not dress up their kids as demons or evil creatures because they are children of God and therefore belong to God alone. “Nothing belongs to the devil because he lost his place in heaven when he rebelled against God,” he stressed.

He added that his parish will celebrate more Masses for “all souls” both in the Ordinary form and Extraordinary form (Traditional Latin Mass) of the Roman rite.

Fr. Jojo Zerrudo leading the 2018 March of the Saints in his parish, Most Holy Redeemer Parish – Araneta (photo from Marilou Santo Domingo Parto)

What makes Undas worthwhile

Even with the restrictions set in place preventing loved ones to pay their respects to their departed at their final resting place in the traditional Undas dates, Catholic leaders insist that it is prayers that make Undas meaningful and worthwhile, not the family gatherings, not the food, nor the overnight stay at the cemeteries.

Bishop Pabillo, in the same pastoral instruction mentioned above, said prayer, especially the offering of Holy Mass is the best we can offer for the dead.

 “On November 1 and 2, all are encouraged to go to Church and offer Mass for our beloved dead. The Holy Eucharist is the best prayer that we can offer,” Pabillo said.

“Our dear departed needs our prayers. And to remind us that life is short. That life belongs to God. That we ought to live our lives with the end in mind. And as what St. Paul said, ‘Whether we live or die, we all belong to God’, Bishop Bagaforo said.

And just as most Filipinos work from home, the restrictions set by the government and the Vatican decree plus the diocesan instructions gave Filipino Catholics the safer, albeit, not normal option, to observe this year’s Undas.