It has become widely known as an awesome display of faith and fervor—a showcase of Filipinos’ profound devotion to an image believed to have wrought miracles in many lives, miracles as wondrous as the healing of a patient deemed “terminal,” or as commonplace as a job that materializes when urgently needed, a folk devotion that commands men (and a number of women) to set out barefoot before first light to take part in a ceremony that begins early in the morning and ends way past midnight, that grows ever bigger, more unwieldy, and more dangerous by the year, that threatens grave injury to devotees, even death.
But the procession of the image of the Black Nazarene in Manila on Jan. 9, a high point in the calendar of Catholic devotions, has taken a grotesque turn. Early on, even before the Mass celebrated at the Quirino Grandstand by the Manila archbishop, Luis Cardinal Tagle, could be concluded preparatory to the procession, a number of devotees broke through the police barrier and rushed toward the image in what appeared to be an attempt to get ahead of the others in laying hands on it and installing it on the carriage that would be pulled on ropes to transport it back to its shrine in Quiapo Church. The frenzy captured by TV cameras was nothing short of appalling. Having been seized by grasping arms, the 17th-century image of the suffering Christ dressed in the familiar maroon robe, crowned with “thorns,” and bearing a cross swayed, teetered and came close to being upended. So startling was it that the observer attentively following the news coverage was likely transfixed by the savage handling, the pawing, of the image venerated by millions, and, perhaps, was moved to wince, or look away.
Or outraged, the way Jaro Archbishop Angel Lagdameo appeared to be. “That is not genuine religion,” the former president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines was reported as saying in reaction to the spectacle that he had witnessed on TV. As it turned out, the devotees’ disruption of the Mass that the priests had (vainly) protested and the initial “pushing and shoving” lamented by Lagdameo were replicated throughout the day in other, violent, ways. At one point, the awesome potential of the crowd—three million strong at its peak, according to unverified estimates—was displayed at the foot of the structurally deficient MacArthur Bridge, which authorities had blocked with container vans to prevent the devotees from heading there. A raucous portion of the multitude, inexplicably wanting the procession to take that bridge, pushed the container vans aside in a mighty show of force, but thankfully failed to divert the procession from the prescribed route. (Randy David, in his column “Culture, faith, and the Black Nazarene,” wrote: “As a student of society, I have been at pains to understand the core beliefs behind this religious devotion. On one hand, the Nazarene devotion seems to signify the continuing vitality of faith in the life of the Filipino. But on the other hand, I cannot help wondering if this tremendous collective power can ever be harnessed as a positive force in the building of a prosperous nation and a decent society.”)
The TV-viewing observer of the Thursday ceremony would find it unchanged in form from years past—still a heaving, supplicating sea of humanity to astound tourists—except for what appeared to be a bigger number of giddy young people who looked like they had embarked on an adventure, a macho rite of passage, and were enjoying the rush, and a seeming harder edge to the crowd—more hysterical, more wild-eyed, more… mob-like.
The last was quite evident in the aftermath of the ceremony that necessitated a formal suspension of classes and of official business in what was once the Noble and Ever Loyal City of Manila: a grim harvest of garbage, 336 tons of it along the procession route. Impassioned they may have been in the display of devotion, enduring pain, hunger, injury, vertigo, and near-suffocation in the course of the day and well into the wee hours of the morning, but the participants of the procession and others who merely waited for the image to wend its tortuous way back left all manner of trash—for other people to collect. Why do they feel entitled to make a supreme mess and not be responsible for it? Why do they think hysteria equals intensity of faith? Surely these offend the Divine.
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