While the coronavirus pandemic has forced people in Madrid to isolate themselves in their apartments, it also has paradoxically brought people together in new and unexpected ways.
Spain, which has surpassed Italy with more than 213,000 people infected with COVID-19, went on lockdown March 15.
Seeing so many people in the neighborhood stand on their balconies applauding those on the front lines of the pandemic "brought a lot of joy to my heart," Father Gabriel Benedicto, pastor of the Church of Our Lady of La Paloma in Madrid told Catholic News Service April 23.
Like many priests around the world, Father Benedicto had no choice but to close the doors of his parish when the lockdown went into effect.
As he and the other priests in his parish locked the doors, Father Benedicto said he was faced with a question that countless priests have asked themselves amid the pandemic: "What do we do now?"
A parishioner sent him a message suggesting that he start using the parish YouTube channel, but "I thought it was something foolish and I didn't even answer back," he said. "That weekend, all we did was proclaim the Word and distribute Communion to any person who came to the church."
But one day, after seeing people applauding from their balconies, Father Benedicto had a change of heart.
"One priest said to me, 'Hey, we need to sing!' And I said, 'Yes. Tomorrow we must sing,' because it was this spontaneous feeling that came from the heart," he told CNS.
The following day, Father Benedicto and the other priests of the parish grabbed their guitars and serenaded the neighborhood with a festive repertoire of music, including "La Vida es un Carnaval" ("Life is a carnival") by famed Cuban artist Celia Cruz.
In addition to people watching live, thousands viewed the video and subscribed to the parish YouTube channel.
It wasn't what he was expecting, he said, "but it was what God had in mind. In fact, for me, it's very uncomfortable to celebrate (Mass) in front of a camera; it seems very 'artificial,' and it's hard to do because all you see is cables and lenses."
Nevertheless, Father Benedicto said that he, along with the three priests and a young missionary who live at the parish, "threw ourselves into this adventure" and were consoled that their parishioners and neighbors could "end the day finding some of the peace that only God can give."
As viewership grew on the channel, the priests not only posted videos of their daily outdoor concerts, but also livestreamed Masses, catechism for children and prayer services for deceased loved ones.
"There are a lot of people who didn't really go to Mass (before) and, in different ways, whether through friends who told them or a relative who died, connected to the Mass online to pray for the deceased," he said.
The priests' new popularity has brought new opportunities for ministry, including the celebration of a wedding where, because of lockdown restrictions, only the newlyweds and their parents could be present.
"We also were the photographers; we carried the train of the bride's dress. We did everything," he said. "It was truly a beautiful moment and the couple were grateful that all their guests could connect" online and celebrate with them.
Despite the isolative nature of the lockdown, Father Benedicto told CNS that through the daily outdoor concerts and online presence, people "found a parish that up until now seemed invisible even though it was right in front of them."
More importantly, he added, people in the area who gather on their balconies every evening to hear the priests sing have "rediscovered the concept of being a 'neighbor.'"
"The word 'neighbor' exists but not the experience of having a neighbor," he said. "If you asked someone in Madrid to tell you the names of their neighbors, they couldn't even give you two names."
Now, after concerts, he said, people often linger on their balconies, greeting each other.
"This warmth, this humanity that we had lost reappeared," he said, "and I believe that it's something very beautiful."