A group of Filipino women pray in silence during the celebration of the Eucharist. Despite being overwhelmingly Catholic, there remains "a big gap between faith and morality, between what we believe and how we live." (Photo by Angie de Silva)
Andrew Bacalla was baptized a Catholic, but it was only recently, when he was 28 years old and a teacher at a Catholic school in Leyte province, that he understood about the church he belongs to.
"I attend Mass though," Bacalla says.
Like most of the 90 million Filipino Catholics who will be attending Holy Week rituals, Bacalla is a "nominal and seasonal Catholic."
Father Amado Picardal, executive secretary of the Episcopal Committee on Basic Ecclesial Communities, admits that the Catholic Church in the Philippines "needs a vigorous new evangelization."
The priest says although many Filipino Catholics participate in Mass, novenas, processions and other rituals, "there is a big gap between faith and morality, between what we believe and how we live."
"There is still corruption, injustices, inequality and indifference," says Father Picardal.
What is needed, the priest says, is "a faith that can inspire us not just to worship and celebrate the Eucharist but to fulfill our prophetic mission and to transform society."
Thousands of Filipino Catholics join a religious procession in the central Philippine province of Cebu in January. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
Attraction of Evangelicals
Christie Bihag is a member of the evangelical church in Leyte province since her parents became curious about the Bible studies being conducted by the church.
"They were not weak in their Catholic faith, but they were searching for answers to questions that were not answered by our Catholic pastors," says Bihag.
She says she does not regret becoming an evangelical Christian "because of the good values and Biblical principles I learned."
"I don't hate the Catholic Church, but I am thankful for finding the truth from studying the Bible," says Bihag.
The young woman says the church itself is to blame for the growing number of Catholics leaving. "We get weaker in our religion when priests don’t encourage us to study the Bible," Bihag says.
Father Virgilio Canete of the Archdiocese of Palo says the "aggressive proselytizing" of some groups is one cause why Filipino Catholics are leaving the church.
"[The evangelical's] style of worship fills a need for some people," the priest says.
"The loss of anonymity in small flocks boost the waning faith of some peoples who are simply faces in the large Catholic Masses," Father Canete says.
"It's not as if this need is not being addressed in Catholic parishes, but one can only do so much," the priest says.
Not in imminent danger
Catholicism in the Philippines is not in imminent danger of losing its faithful despite the growing number of other Christian denominations.
"This exodus finds counterbalance in the converts that find their way into the church, few and far between they may be," says Father Canete.
Father Picardal says Filipino Catholics need to undergo a "personal conversion and become genuine missionary disciples in communities."
The recent International Eucharistic Congress, which was held in the Philippines in January, "is a sign of how vibrant the church is not only in the Philippines but also in Asia, Africa, and Latin America," says Father Picardal.
While admitting that the Catholic Church is losing members in Europe due to secularism, "the church in the Philippines is vibrant and expanding."
"Our churches are full, lay people, including the youth, are actively involved in church activities and mission," he says.
Father Picardal puts a lot of hope on basic ecclesial communities and renewal movements.
"Even overseas Filipino workers … bring with them their brand of faith and religiosity and are injecting new vitality to local churches," says the priest.
Although many Filipino Catholics participate in Mass, novenas, processions and other rituals, "there is a big gap between faith and morality, between what we believe and how we live," says Father Amado Picardal, head of the bishops' Committee on Basic Ecclesial Communities. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
No time for lukewarm Catholics
In the central Philippine province of Leyte, which was devastated by Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, the observance of the Holy Week is "no time to blame the forces of nature for our sufferings and pains," says Msgr. Ramon Aguilos of the Archdiocese of Palo.
"Let not the Holy Week be a time to be lukewarm," the priest says.
"For if no less than the environment and climate are in sync with the spirit of the season, all the more are we to take part in this great event by immersing ourselves in a deeply spiritual atmosphere," he adds.
"Let us move from lukewarmness of sin and evil to the vigor of Easter," says Msgr. Aguilos, adding that after the tragedy of recent years, the rebuilding of communities should also be the "springtime of our Christian life."