It was an awe-inspiring sight I saw on TV last week. That was the near-literal sea of humanity filling up every interstice of Quiapo and neighboring parts, sending ripples this way and that as the procession of the Black Nazarene went underway and a multitude pressed on, the more intrepid or unruly clawing their way toward the carriage and clambering aboard. The reporters who had plunged into the maelstrom swore they couldn’t breathe at some point, their chests were being crushed by the bodies in front of them. I could sympathize with them, having taken the MRT repeatedly during rush hour and experiencing the same thing. Except that the MRT ride took only 20 minutes.
This one took close to a day, having taken a longer route this year. Some of the devotees went the entire length, most only a stretch of it but which took several hours. Some didn’t make it past the Mass, which prefaced the procession and which was cut short by a crowd that started surging forward before it was over. They passed out where they stood and had to be carried over to the medical emergency units for treatment.
Behold the power and terror of fervor and fanaticism, devotion and incantation, piety and anxiety, religion and prostration, faith and fiesta, however you see it. The spectacle was not without those violently clashing elements.
The good, as priests and laymen pointed out, was that it showed the deep and boundless faith of Filipinos, which is probably the one thing that keeps us together (family is second), which is probably the only thing that allows us to pull through the most unimaginable woes. If Pope Francis were to see this, one priest said, he would probably rush to the embrace of the most faithful of his faithful.
It was no accident, observers observed, that this year saw the most spectacular turnout of devotees—post-procession estimates put the multitude at three million, more than at any time in the past. Last year was a particularly cruel year, home to tribulations of all sorts, not least from Nature, capped by the catastrophic Supertyphoon “Yolanda.” People needed prayer more than ever, and none seemed more efficacious than the one sent the way of the Black Nazarene, particularly with his icon in near-proximity, or indeed within touch.
It’s a curious feature of faith, or the psychology of faith, though that the nonfulfillment of the wished-for miracle, or deliverance from earthly harm, does not diminish devotion to the panata, it stokes it to a blazing fire. The nonfulfillment is seen as God’s way of testing faith. If this year should prove crueler than the last, we’re bound to see more, and not less, supplicants next year.
But I’m not knocking it. You’ve got to know, or experience, levels of utter desperation to appreciate this equivalent of clinging to something, anything, while the swirling waters are wrenching houses, animals, and loved ones away from you. Which in fact was what the Taclobanons did at the height of Yolanda. What else do you have left?
I remember a story we had here a week or so ago about a senior citizen from Leyte who lost everything last year. One after the other, he lost his bid in elections, he lost all his money to a Ponzi scam, and he lost his entire family, wife, children and their spouses, to the sea. And yet he remains determined to soldier on—quite literally in that he was a soldier once. What sustains him? Not his military training, he says, but his faith. His tragedy has made him a firmer believer.
No, I’m not knocking it. The alternative is simply beyond contemplation.
The good as well this year is that the right Church officials were there to add insights or meanings to the rite. Cardinal Chito Tagle, the highest Church official of this country, took it as an occasion to rail against corruption, saying Filipinos should not be ashamed to display their faith, however in this way, they should be ashamed instead to display their ill-gotten wealth in whatever way.
Jose Clemente Ignacio, the Quiapo parish priest, said quite thoughtfully as well that it was perfectly understandable why most Filipinos could identify with the Black Nazarene. They shared the same plight with him, burdened as they were too by the cross of adversity, hardship, suffering. Who better to send their lamentations to than a God that knew where they were coming from? Of course, said Ignacio, that also raised questions about why they were poor in the first place, why they lived in a constant state of adversity, hardship, suffering. Surely, he said, that drew attention to a skewed distribution of resources too?
A very good point and worlds better than just the usual blithe platitudes about resilience.
But that brings us to the downside in all this too. Because for all the color and pageantry of it, for all the agony and ecstasy of it, it reminds us of the penitents that trek down the stony paths of Pampanga, flogging themselves with glass-laced thongs and nailing themselves to a cross in an explosion of maniacal fervor and need for forgiveness for a wayward life one day of the year, so they could go back to the same wayward life the rest of the year. It’s presumptuous to know how the Pope would react to an invitation to something like this, but I suspect he will be a bit more ambivalent. This is a Pope after all who’s big about the internal life, about living the essence of faith rather than donning the gaudy, or bloody, robes of faith, about showing the face of one’s God in how faithfully he follows his example and not how faithfully he observes the sacraments.
That was a faith surge shown mightily in Quiapo last week, not unlike the storm surge we saw a couple of months ago in Tacloban. Alas, these kinds of surges have a way of leaving people depleted too.
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