04/06/2020, 14.13
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The pandemic halts Holy Week rituals for Portuguese Catholics in Melaka

by Joseph Masilamany

Every year, time-honoured Lenten processions, poignant ceremonies and colourful rituals have taken place during Holy Week, standing the test of time.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) – This year, traditional Holy Week rituals will not take place in Melaka (Malacca) as the COVID-9 pandemic tightens its grip on everyone’s life.

Melaka is a city in the Malay Archipelago, where the first seeds of Catholicism were sown by Portuguese missionaries in the 15th century.

Portuguese Square, a settlement that is home to about a thousand descendants of the first Portuguese, is one of several vestiges that testify to the successful Portuguese mission to the Malay lands.

Every year during Holy Week, time-honoured Lenten processions, poignant ceremonies and colourful rituals, are showcased in honour of the "holiest week" in the Catholic calendar, says Gerard Pereira, 65, a Portuguese Eurasian who lives in the square.

Speaking to AsiaNews, Pereira notes that all these celebrations have stood the test of time. “They remind us of the glorious past when our Portuguese forefathers occupied the city from 1511 to 1641.”

According to him, these unique Portuguese-styled Lenten activities attract thousands of Catholics, other Christians and even non-Christians, as busloads of foreign tourists come from as far north as Thailand and from Singapore in the south.

Pereira, who heads his own cultural music company called "1511 O Maliao,” aimed at preserving the traditional dances and songs of the old Portuguese Malacca, said that some people perceive it as "Little Portugal of the East" and others think that Malacca is a silent "re-evangelisation hub” for every Christian who returns to visit the city.

On Palm Sunday the procession commences in the evening, led by two members of the Irmaos de Igreja (Brothers of the Church) with the banners of the Holy Eucharist and the Mater Dolorosa (Mary, Mother of Sorrows).

A wooden statue reminiscent of Jesus carrying the cross and another wooden figurine representing the sorrowful mother of Jesus are carried around St Peter’s Church, accompanied by the faithful holding lighted candles and green palms. A moving scene ensues along the way as a girl, representing Veronica, unfolds a veil with the imprint of Christ's battered face.

On Good Friday, another extraordinary representation of Christ’s Passion and death is enacted with the life-size statue of the lifeless Lord carried in procession on a wooden bier. Three people acting as the Tres Marias (The Three Marys) follow alongside while a mournful dirge in Latin rises to a crescendo.

In his book, Survival Through Human Values, the late Fr Manual Pintado, who was St Peter’s parish priest, wrote that that the Augustinian missionaries introduced Holy Week cultural practices and ceremonies that are still alive today.

Fr Pintado also attributes the formation of the Irmaos de Igreja, who have been the custodians of the special Holy Week celebrations since the 15th century, to the Augustinian missionaries. They are said to be the oldest Catholic society in Southeast Asia.

Portuguese Square is a stronghold for Portuguese descendants like Pereira and his wife Mary who strive to maintain their religion, language, culture and traditions.

Although Pereira and his family will miss the age-old charm of their quaint Holy Week rituals this year, he takes comfort that the local Church is providing livestream broadcast of all Lenten masses.

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