MANILA—Deprived of sleep and seeing weird “shadows,” a woman nearing her 50s went to her parish priest in Quezon City about 3 weeks ago, fearing she was experiencing something diabolical.
But after careful evaluation, Fr. Michel Joe Zerrudo, a trained exorcist for 13 years, concluded that the woman, her family’s sole income earner, was in fact going through a rather difficult moment of uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Her panic attacks and sleepless nights, it turned out, were likely brought about by the prospect of losing her office job, and not a case of demonic oppression, which is a prelude to a possession.
Intense pandemic-induced worries, some wrongly attributed to fiendish origins, have prompted a number of parishioners to seek spiritual help, said Zerrudo, who halted his exorcisms while awaiting church protocols on how to practice the ministry while avoiding exposure to COVID-19.
“Most are actually psychological,” he told ABS-CBN News, referring to written “narratives” he required people to submit as part of a preliminary evaluation to determine demonic presence and if exorcism would be needed.
But they require special attention just the same, given the huge impact of the pandemic on both their mental and spiritual health, he said.
Exorcism, which is intended to liberate a person from demonic possession based on Catholic teaching, is performed only after a priest, with the help of experts, ascertained "that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness."
The current pandemic presents a challenge to exorcists like Zerrudo since the rite requires physical interaction. Examining a person through video call, for instance, is difficult because the exorcist may miss certain indicators or behavior, he said.
In the province of Bulacan, north of Metro Manila, parish priest Nicanor Lalog also saw an increase in the number of parishioners seeking counselling, many of whom he referred to medical professionals for possible depression.
One such case involved a father, who was so afraid to return to his job in another province because he might contract COVID-19 and might not be able to come home.
Others complained of some inexplicable condition but were later cleared in medical tests.
“Mukhang sobrang depression na sa pandemic,” he told ABS-CBN News. “This is something that we really have to address, especially if the pandemic will be prolonged.”
Last May, the National Center for Mental Health reported an uptick in the number of people calling for help on its hotline. From 60 to 80 calls monthly, the number went up to 300 to 400 during the lockdown.
"We can safely say... there are a lot of problems that are being experienced by our people amid this lockdown," the hospital's director told senators in a hearing.
Lalog admitted feeling “low” himself at the sight of his empty church at the San Juan Apostol at Ebanghelista Parish in Sta. Maria town early during the lockdown.
Limited to celebrating Masses via Facebook Live back in May, he encouraged attendees to drop by the highway afterward in what became a “drive-thru” holy communion.
Seeing parishioners in the flesh was a welcome relief for Lalog, who was used to visiting them twice weekly before the lockdown but was now confined mostly to the parish convent.
Zerrudo noted the importance of receiving holy communion during Mass.
“The sacrament itself should be a physical union,” he said. “Imagine an advertisement of a burger. No matter how much I want it, I will not be satisfied.”