MANILA, Philippines—Malling has been called the new national past time. Every weekend, hordes of people, families and teenage cliques, troop to malls for sightseeing, to shop and surprisingly, to hear Mass.
Church services in malls are a relatively new phenomenon, an indication of the pervasive influence of the mall culture and proof of the evolving Filipino lifestyle.
It also serves as the perfect example of the marriage between business and religion as it responds to a specific need of shoppers and lengthens their stay inside the store.
SM Prime Holdings Inc., which built a chapel inside one of its biggest complexes, the SM Megamall in Mandaluyong City, was one of first developers that gave a space for religion inside its mall.
Independent mall chapel
The Chapel of the Eucharistic Lord, located on the fifth floor of Building A, is the first and only independent mall chapel in the country, answerable only to the Archdiocese of Manila. The rest are under the jurisdiction of the parish where they are located.
Msgr. Bong Lo, chaplain, said the chapel was built nine years ago upon the prodding of SM matriarch Felicidad Sy, who happens to be a devout Catholic.
Before that, the mall offered Mass in the lobby, which eventually, could not accommodate the growing number of worshippers.
According to Lo, the chapel’s Sunday attendance is quite impressive, with about 1,100 people attending Mass regularly.
Lo said he could understand why people would want to attend Mass in the malls instead of the traditional churches. For one, it is more comfortable because of the air-conditioning, he said.
It is also more convenient for people as they can attend to their spiritual and worldly tasks under one roof, he added.
Asked if he is concerned that bringing the Mass, a highly ritualized and spiritual tradition, to a decidedly commercial and mundane environment, would cheapen what should be a holy and personal experience, Lo said that would never be the case.
“It’s a conscious effort of the Church to go where the people are. We have to meet people half-way. It’s the evangelizing spirit of the Church,” Lo explained.
The other pioneer is the Ortigas family, developer of the Greenhills Shopping Complex in San Juan City, which built both a chapel for Catholics and a prayer room for Muslims on its property.
The prayer room, built three years ago and the first in the country, created controversy when residents from the nearby gated subdivision opposed its construction for fear that it would bring unpleasant elements to the neighborhood.
In a move of solidarity with his Muslim counterparts, Archbishop of Manila Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales also stopped the services in the chapel until the issue was resolved.
Rex Drilon II, chief operating officer of the Ortigas and Co. Ltd. Partnership, said the prayer room was built to accommodate the needs of Muslim traders in the Greenhills flea market.
Drilon said the prayer room, which is carpeted, air-conditioned, and has a halal canteen next door, was the company’s way of giving back to around 500 Muslim merchants and their staff.
“They pray five times a day. With the prayer room, they didn’t have to go to the Quiapo Mosque and come back to Greenhills again,” he noted.
Drilon added that he has heard complaints about mixing religion with business, but he has dismissed them all.
“There are ultra-conservatives who frown on this development. But God is everywhere. You don’t have to go to a church to pray,” he noted.
At the Power Plant Mall, tucked away in a corner of the third floor and just a few feet from the bowling alley, is a place not many would expect to find in a shopping complex—a chapel.
But while the serene atmosphere inside the hall seems out of step with the otherwise materialistic scene beyond its doors, people keep drifting in, perhaps for a moment’s prayer or to hear Holy Mass.
By any standard, the chapel, suffused in a pale golden light, has all the trimmings of any House of God, save for the synthetic rattan chairs in place of pews.
Stained glass windows overlook a park lined with palm trees; on the walls hang miniature carvings of the Stations of the Cross; and facing the tall wooden doors is an oil painting of Jesus Christ. Everywhere, in keeping with the gold-and-white motif, the mood is somber and peaceful.
On a humid Thursday afternoon, Fr. Albert Flores is celebrating Mass before a fairly sizable crowd of churchgoers.
Many of them belong to Rockwell Center’s target market, the A-B crowd. Clad in smart casual clothes, the congregation is mostly middle-aged with little children tagging along.
For many people, the celebration of Mass inside places like Power Plant Mall, and other shopping centers, has become almost natural in an age of increasingly busy and modern lifestyles.
“It’s not easy for us to go to Mass regularly on Sunday, so we have to find other ways to do it,” said one homemaker, Natasha, who did not want to give her last name.
“I think it’s a good thing they have a chapel here, because that way, I can pray more often, unlike before,” Natasha said.
“Before, every time we plan to go to church, it never pushes through for some reason or other. But here, for example, I can go to church before I do my grocery run,” she added.
Not everyone, however, is as comfortable with the idea of going to Mass inside a mall as Natasha. Take Victor Tabang, who works as a security guard at the mall.
The old fashioned way
According to him, he still prefers the old fashioned way of going to church in one’s Sunday best.
“It’s different somehow. When people go to church, that’s the only thing they are thinking of,” Tabang said.
But he said he understands why some people like going to church inside the mall. “We really can’t blame them. People are always so busy, so I guess they have no choice,” he said.
For Msgr. Nico Bautista, one of the more outspoken members of clergy, he has no problem per se with celebrating Mass, be it in “a mall, a school, a restaurant, or a basketball court.”
“It’s the Church’s way of reaching out to people. It’s the nature of the modern times, and if we have to celebrate Mass in a mall, so be it,” added Bautista, a member of the Movie Television Review and Classification Board.
But what infuriates the outspoken priest is the fact that the practice is also being done at the SM chain of malls.
Bautista, who celebrates Sunday Masses in Magallanes in Makati City, is convinced that the mall’s management, which has faced charges of unfair labor practices, should not allow Mass to be celebrated in its premises. (Lo refused to comment on Bautista’s statement.)
What do the faithful say about the marriage between the commercial and the spiritual? Does it bother them that, for some, going to Mass has become just another errand in the to-do list?
Churchgoers never seem to mind the contradictions, and mall chapels, from Megamall to Shangri-la Plaza are always full of Sunday worshippers.
Rey Malabarbas, 27, and a Pasig City resident, said he prefers to hear Mass at the mall because of the lively homilies. He noted that the mall preachers do not drive him to sleep and that their homilies are always grounded on real, personal lives.
Another regular mall church-goer, Ella Napata, said she appreciates the service in the mall because it is convenient and the sermons are better than the ones told in her church. Apart from the Sunday Mass, Napata also attends the Wednesday novenas.
Both said there are always people who will consider going to Mass incidental to shopping. These people would just have to reckon with their conscience, they noted.
But at least they get to hear Mass, and that’s the important thing, they added, and certainly better than not going at all.