As I See It

Stop bizarre and bloody Good Friday rituals

/ 04:52 AM April 16, 2014

The Philippines has so many Holy Week rituals that many foreigners find quaint, even strange.  In fact, a couple of them have become outright attractions.

Foreigners come here not to enjoy the beaches and scenery of the Philippines, but to watch bizarre and bloody rituals that would probably be outlawed in most civilized countries.


One ritual involves penitents, their faces covered, flogging themselves bloody while walking through the streets in the rural areas. The local folk, children included, and foreigners, with their inevitable cameras and videocams, line the roadsides to watch them pass.

If you observe the faces of the onlookers, you will see expressions of amusement, wonder, pity, disgust and even revulsion. “Why do some people do these things to themselves?” is the question not expressed but written on them.


Yes, why do they do that? It is the belief that by going through the pain and suffering of Jesus, they would be atoning for their sins and would be forgiven. One penitent probably voices it for all of them: “After the ritual, I feel relaxed, contented and happy, with no care in the world, knowing that my sins have been forgiven.”

But have they really been forgiven? We don’t know. The Catholic Church doesn’t think so, and even frowns on the ritual. It says it is not necessary to inflict pain on yourself to be forgiven.  Just by feeling sorry—sincerely and with no mental reservation—for your sins, asking forgiveness for them, and resolving not to do them again would be enough. To leave no doubt in the mind, go to confession.

But that’s just it. I have a sneaking suspicion that the penitents know they will sin again, that, try as they might to resist it, they will succumb again to temptation. So, just to make sure, they flog themselves silly.

It can be compared to a pail put under a dripping faucet. Each drop of water represents a sin. In due time, if the dripping is not stopped, the pail will be full.  Figuratively, the penitent simply empties the pail, then returns it to its place under the dripping faucet. But he does nothing to fix the drip. It is difficult to dismantle a faucet and fix it. It is much easier to just empty the pail and put it back under the faucet to catch the water, drop by drop.

Having oneself nailed to a cross is yet another bizarre ritual. To the imagined forgiveness of sins is added the element of being a celebrity, at least for a day.

On Good Friday, in Barrio Cutud in Pampanga, a man (sometimes three of them) is nailed, literally and with real nails, to a cross atop a low hill as thousands of local and foreign tourists and plain curiosity seekers watch with awe and pity.

Some foreigners think there must be a trick to it, like what some faith healers do during their healing sessions. Some foreigners watch very closely when the nail is pounded into the palm of the penitent, looking for a trick. A few ask to handle the nail first. Others take close-ups with their videocam, hoping to inspect the footage later and find the trick.


But there is no trick. Those are real nails made of stainless steel or nickel-plated, earlier soaked in alcohol to kill all bacteria and prevent infection in the wound. The fleshy part of the palm is chosen for the nail to go through, to prevent any bone or cartilage from being damaged.

If there is any trick at all, it is probably the injection of an anesthetic on the palm beforehand to deaden the pain. Then the penitent is made to stand on a small foot support nailed to the cross. That is to prevent the man’s weight from pulling him down and putting pressure on his palms and his arms. Sometimes, his arms are tied to the cross, again to relieve weight pressure on the palms. Finally, the cross is pulled down a few minutes after it is put up and the nails removed, the wounds treated, and the man returned to his family. But not before thousands of shots by still cameras and thousands of feet of video footage have been taken.

What does the penitent get out of it? Aside from what I have earlier stated—the feeling of relief and contentment that all his sins have been forgiven and he can start again with a clean slate—there is the feeling of being a celebrity, and having his own place in the sun. Now everybody in his town knows him. Children point to him when they see him, as though he were a movie star.  Having your picture in the newspapers and on television does not happen to everybody every day.

Are these rituals good or bad for the image of the Philippines? While the Department of Tourism is happy with the number of tourists and the dollars that they bring in, I do not think these rituals are good for the country’s image. It gives the impression that we are a primitive and backward country with bizarre and barbaric rituals. It is not far from the image painted of us during the early days of the American occupation—that in the Philippines, the monkeys have no tails.

The Catholic Church has frowned on the primitive practices and has issued statements and sermons that these are not the way to atone for one’s sins. But it is not trying hard enough. The bizarre rituals continue.

The government and the schools should help. An information campaign should be mounted against these rituals. But I think it would suffer the same fate as the yearly warning against exploding firecrackers on New Year’s Eve. Nobody listens to it. Every New Year’s Eve, hundreds still suffer injuries from firecracker blasts.

Despite warnings, there will still be penitents flogging themselves and having themselves nailed to the cross every Good Friday.

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TAGS: Barrio Cutud, Bloody Rituals, Catholic Church, Good Friday, holy week, Pampanga, Religious Rituals, rituals, Roman Catholic
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