GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador – Priests in Guayaquil, the city most affected by COVID-19 in Ecuador, have had to reinvent themselves to continue giving spiritual guidance after the country’s churches were closed and funerals forbidden.
Clergy have had to embrace technology in their search for new ways to spiritually and psychologically support their believers.
Edilberto Torres, pastor at San Juan Bosco church, south of the city, tells EFE that he has had to redesign his way of working since 14 March when religious centers were closed.
Special attention has been given to those who have suffered from the disease or those who have lost loved ones.
He says he recruited the help of tech-savvy members of his congregation to broadcast daily services on Facebook.
His assistants arrive half an hour before the ceremonies to make sure everything is ready.
The service is broadcast using a mobile phone and one of the parishioners moves through the church to capture the different parts of the religious ceremony as closely as possible.
More than 300 people connect daily to follow the priest live from their homes and often leave comments on the videos.
“Most are people who belong to the parish, but there are also others who follow us from Colombia, the United States, Spain, Argentina,” Torres says with satisfaction.
But mass has not been the only aspect of his job that has had to adapt to the virtual world.
He also uses social media, phone calls and video conferencing platforms to host prayer sessions and give spiritual advice.
“Many families call us on the phone we have in the parish so that we can listen to them, to tell us about the situation they have in their family, if any of them has the virus or if they have lost a loved one,” he explains.
The demand for these sessions has become so frequent that Torres dedicates a portion of his time every day to virtually connecting with individuals and families.
He says he has even had calls asking him to perform baptisms online.
“They ask me by WhatsApp or video and I tell them that this is not possible, that if the person is in danger of death they can do a baptism and I can give some guidelines,” he adds.
He says that many people have returned to the church during the crisis.
Luis Gerardo Cabrera, Guayaquil’s archbishop, says other churches in the city have also had to adapt to support their congregations during the lockdown.
“We offer psychological support. More than one person has come to us because they are depressed, others have experienced anxiety and fear,” he adds.
“So being around these people, listening to them, making suggestions, proposing some thought or something they can do is very important for us.”
He says one of the hardest aspects of the crisis has been the restrictions on holding funerals and wakes.
Many people have started posting videos with recorded messages and words of support on the archdiocese’s Facebook page instead.
Priests have also held virtual services to bless burials at cemeteries.
“We want to continue transmitting those messages of hope because we see that it does people good,” Cabrera says.
Guayaquil resident Marcela Navarrete is one of the faithful who has used technology to get advice and support from her priest.
The 28-year-old says her family found the guidance and advice particularly helpful when her uncle died after contracting the virus.
“We made many video calls during the most critical days, before his death,” she adds.
She describes it as “like having a personal counselor at home and for our family” and says it “helped us a lot in the moments of greatest pain.”
Those working in Guayaquil’s churches have also been directly affected by the pandemic, which had killed two priests and infected six others by April 25.
The archdiocese has been studying protocols to protect the faithful and their priests from infection.
COVID-19 has killed more than 1,000 people and infected 26,300 others in Ecuador, which has a population of 17 million, according to official data.