Mass without the masses: Malaysia’s Catholics keep the faith this Covid Christmas

Kenneth Tee And Ashman Adam
·5-min read
Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur Julian Leow Beng Kim conducting Christmas Mass at the Church of Divine Mercy which was livestreamed to the faithful in Shah Alam December 25, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur Julian Leow Beng Kim conducting Christmas Mass at the Church of Divine Mercy which was livestreamed to the faithful in Shah Alam December 25, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

SHAH ALAM, Dec 25 — The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has not dampened the Christmas spirit and spiritual obligations of the faithful, as Catholics nationwide got together and attended Christmas Mass virtually for the first time since the virus broke out almost a year ago.

Following government restrictions imposed on congregations, Kuala Lumpur Archbishop Julian Leow Beng Kim nonetheless delivered his sermon and read scriptures in Bahasa Malaysia to rows of empty pews at the Church of Divine Mercy here through a camera set up on the church’s second floor.

Hosted by the Kuala Lumpur Archdiocese on its official YouTube channel, the livestream of the Mass was conducted in four languages: English, Mandarin, Bahasa Malaysia and Tamil.

Christmas or ‘The Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord’ as it is known amongst the Catholic faithful is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ as celebrated by Christians around the world.

Church choir is limited to a selected few as Christmas Mass is conducted without the presence of churchgoers in respect of congregation limit restrictions imposed by the government at the Church of Divine Mercy December 25, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus La
Church choir is limited to a selected few as Christmas Mass is conducted without the presence of churchgoers in respect of congregation limit restrictions imposed by the government at the Church of Divine Mercy December 25, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus La

Leow, who was the lead celebrant, alongside two clerics and four altar servers, was also accompanied by a church choir of about 15 people.

Strict compliance of standard operating procedure (SOP) including social distancing between those present in church were also observed throughout the Order of Mass and Communion.

“We’ve been doing this for the past eight months, and for Christmas, I think it’s significant in the sense Jesus was born in a manger with very few people around and alone.

“I think it’s quite relevant in that we’re celebrating in a more confined and more isolated way,” Leow said to Malay Mail on observing Christmas Mass during a government-imposed conditional movement control order (CMCO).

Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur Julian Leow Beng Kim conducting Christmas Mass at the Church of Divine Mercy which was livestreamed to the faithful in Shah Alam December 25, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur Julian Leow Beng Kim conducting Christmas Mass at the Church of Divine Mercy which was livestreamed to the faithful in Shah Alam December 25, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

KL Archdiocese social communications chief Ignatius Krishna explained that the technical set-up was similar to that used during the Easter Vigil observed in April that was also led by Leow.

Ignatius explained that the Mass was initially supposed to be held at St John’s Cathedral in the city centre — the seat of the archbishop and the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur — but had changed its location due to unforeseen circumstances.

For Petaling Jaya’s St Ignatius Catholic Church parish priest Andrew Wong Choong Wing, every cloud has a silver lining as believers would still be able to feel the same joy felt every Christmas despite the absence of parishioners and adjustments made to accommodate MCO restrictions.

“This year’s Christmas is definitely very different from Christmases in the past, but with the technology we have today, we can share our love for Jesus on social media through greetings on Facebook and the sort, and hold our Masses ‘live’ on our YouTube page.

“Our Christmas Eve Mass last night saw some 4,000 people tuning in to our livestream. That just goes to show even though we can’t be together physically, we can all be together spiritually,” he said, adding that a technical team was on-site to ensure an uninterrupted stream.

St Ignatius Catholic Church is one of the parishes under the KL Archdiocese.

Despite the livestreams, Wong said churchgoers were allowed to visit the church between 1pm and 7pm for those wishing to pray and pay homage to the Christmas crib (nativity scene) that has been erected within.

He also stressed that strict SOP and physical distancing compliance will be observed throughout the period, with only 20 people allowed in at one time and five minutes accorded to each individual.

Churchgoers receive communion during Christmas mass at the Church of Divine Mercy in Shah Alam December 25, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Churchgoers receive communion during Christmas mass at the Church of Divine Mercy in Shah Alam December 25, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

Parishioners reminisce about Christmas Mass togetherness

St Ignatius Church churchgoer Benny Au admitted that the current circumstances lacked the atmosphere and sense of togetherness as one would feel when attending a church at full capacity.

Au said he always looked forward to meeting fellow parishioners in church before pointing out that attending Mass online was different from attending church in-person.

“Attending Mass online is very different from attending Mass at church. Some people may lose a bit of faith because they don’t know how to get onto the livestream, especially those from the older generation.

“It’s up to us how we keep our faith alive and strive to gain the goodness of coming to Mass, even if it’s online,” the 22-year-old said.

Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur Julian Leow Beng Kim conducting Christmas Mass at the Church of Divine Mercy which was livestreamed to the faithful in Shah Alam December 25, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur Julian Leow Beng Kim conducting Christmas Mass at the Church of Divine Mercy which was livestreamed to the faithful in Shah Alam December 25, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

Au was one of those who had arrived early to attend prayers and pay homage to the Christmas crib erected in the church.

Echoing Au’s sentiment was 45-year-old churchgoer Sebastian Yew, who said he felt a little disheartened to see the church empty on Christmas Day.

“I miss the sound of everyone singing together, that feeling of everyone as one. You don’t get that so much when you attend online Mass, especially for Christmas,” he said.

As for three brothers — Francis, Holden and Ethan Then — hailing from Kuching, Sarawak, celebrating Christmas during an MCO has definitely dampened their spirits a little.

“Everybody celebrating and singing in church is what we miss the most,” Holden said.

“In a church, everybody is your family. But now we just have to celebrate with our own families at home. It’s just not the same feeling,” Ethan added.

Kuala Lumpur Archbishop Julian Leow Beng Kim speaks to Malay Mail during an interview at the Church of Divine Mercy in Shah Alam December 25, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Kuala Lumpur Archbishop Julian Leow Beng Kim speaks to Malay Mail during an interview at the Church of Divine Mercy in Shah Alam December 25, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

Previously, Leow had in a statement said that there will be no public Masses in the Klang Valley throughout the Christmas season as the Church steps up efforts to safeguard against further Covid-19 infections within the community.

Under the directive of the KL Archdiocese, public Masses in all parishes under its umbrella will be suspended from Christmas Eve on December 24 until Epiphany on January 3.

The government has also banned Christmas carolling and open houses.

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