Charism or chaos?
Many filipinos wear their faith like a badge—proudly, unapologetically, and, occasionally, as in the Jan. 9 Black Nazarene procession, recklessly.
The biggest religious procession in the country honors the life-sized wooden image of the Christ that a priest from Mexico was said to have brought to Manila in 1606. In a ritual known as “traslacion,” barefoot men pull the blackened image on a carriage on a specific route and back to Quiapo Church, where it has been housed since 1787.
The tumultuous procession can last up to 22 hours and unfailingly descends into a frenzied roiling mass, with the devotees striving mightily to get close to the image in the belief that touching it could induce a miraculous cure or an answered prayer.
This ardent devotion, according to some Catholic clerics, is the faithful’s way of taking part in Christ’s suffering while carrying the cross to Mount Calvary. Others compare the annual procession to a religious pilgrimage that one priest described as “a wonderful experience—to be cleansed, to be one with the people, to experience heaven.” To touch the Black Nazarene is apparently to be connected to the divine, hence the frantic attempts to mount the carriage and touch the image’s face and hands.
The procession and the risks involved in being part of it illustrate the depth of Filipinos’ faith, other Church officials maintain. They point to how the devotion transforms otherwise crude men into devotees protecting the image on the 7-kilometer route through Manila’s circuitous streets.
But shouldn’t displays of faith, like all good things, be tempered? Year after year, police, traffic and Church authorities carefully lay down plans to curb the excesses of this phenomenal gathering that have resulted in choked streets, literal hills of trash, and, tragically, deaths and injuries.
Last year, an elderly man suffered a heart attack in the midst of the frenzy. A younger man was trampled to death, his mangled body found hours later. For all that, his kin declared they would continue this religious tradition that, they said, had cured a family member of leukemia and kept the kids away from vice.
With the dense crowd providing fertile ground for terrorist plots, the government this year assured the public of tightened security measures, with thousands of police officers, military men and traffic marshals deployed throughout the procession route. Organizers also said they would collaborate anew with various government agencies to ensure a “peaceful and meaningful” observance of the feast of the Black Nazarene, adopting best practices and lessons learned from last year’s visit of Pope Francis and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit to ensure “peace, order, and cleanliness.”
As well they should. If it’s true that cleanliness is next to godliness, how explain the stink and filth on the streets in the wake of the procession? Surely the gentle and merciful God that the devotees adore is not pleased.
Last year, the Metro Manila Development Authority collected 192 tons of trash, or 32 truckloads, from the celebration that, green groups lamented, turned Quiapo into a dump. Whatever happened to the ban on plastics, the default packaging used on peddled food? The Ecological Solid Waste Management Act specifically prohibits “the littering, throwing and dumping of waste matters in roads, sidewalks, canals, esteros, parks and other public places,” with violators fined up to P1,000 and obliged to render community service.
And whatever happened to faith and piety? Are frenzied behavior and sheer number proof of religious devotion? In 2014, scores of male devotees brandished their faith like pitchforks and disrupted the early-morning Mass being celebrated by Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle at Quirino Grandstand ahead of the procession. After the homily, the devotees broke through the police barrier and rushed the stage to seize the image.
It was no longer charism but chaos, and a portent of things to come—unless the government and Church officials impose firm steps to rein in the macho fanaticism, misplaced revelry and unnecessary risks that have become a popular but deeply-flawed measure of piety.
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