MANILA - The annual spectacle attracts millions. They watch their Jesus in a chariot maneuvered by an army of men through the dusty streets of Manila.
Under the punching heat of the sun or heavy rains, men and women, young and old from all walks of life trudge on barefoot, waving their towels as they shout the name of their savior.
These scenes are too familiar with Rev. Msgr. Clemente Ignacio, who, for seven years held the helm in Quiapo Church as its rector and parish priest.
Recalling when he first arrived at the doorsteps of the Quiapo Church, he said what greeted him was almost alien to him; different practices surrounding the devotion to the Black Nazarene that, initially, he thought were detached from the theological framework that he learned in the seminary.
There was the “pahalik” (kissing of the statue of the Nazarene and other statues of saints), “pasindi” (lighting of candles for prayers), “pabihis” (the changing of garments of the Nazarene), “pabendisyon” (sprinkling of the Holy Water), “pagpasan” (the carrying of the carroza on shoulders or the rope attached to it"), “paglalakad ng paluhod” (processing to the altar of the church on bended knees) and many others.
"I did not know much about the devotion. Lumaki ako sa isang private Catholic school. Hindi naman itinuturo itong devotion to the Black Nazarene. Ang itinuturo sa amin ay devotion to Mama Mary, ‘yung devotion to the guardian angels... pero ‘yung devotion to the Black Nazarene, hindi," Clemente said.
(I was raised in a private Catholic school. We were not taught about the devotion to the Black Nazarene. We were taught about the devotion to the Virgin Mary, guardian angels… but not the Black Nazarene.)
“In those days, in our schools, it was frowned by theology. 'Yung mga sinasabi nila parang may mga elements of occult, fanaticism. (What they said is it seemed there were elements of occult, fanaticism.)”
The monsignor said the Church has always been aware of the criticisms against the devotion to the Black Nazarene.
Clemente said he used to pose the same questions. But in the seven years that he had spent with the devotees, seven years of countless stories of miracles, he said he saw and realized that it was genuine faith that attracted throngs of believers.
“It was authentic faith experience... ‘Yung mga humahawak sa istatwa nagdadasal sila, umiiyak 'yung marami doon because something happened to them in their visits to Quiapo Church and their devotion to the Black Nazarene,” the priest said.
(Those who touch the statue, they were praying, many were crying because something happened to them in their visits to Quiapo Church and their devotion to the Black Nazarene.)
“Nagtatanong kami, ano ba itong nangyayari? We have to search ourselves. Ang feeling ko theology has not advanced so much to be able to answer the need to understand, but the people have already possessed it in their hearts. 'Yun ang aking realizations.”
(We were asking, what is this? We have to search ourselves. I feel that theology has not advanced so much to be able to answer the need to understand, but the people have already possessed it in their hearts.)
THE CONVERT SPEAKS
Ignacio said it is easy to paint the devotees as fanatics especially when you see the multitude of people scrambling just to touch, to get a glimpse of the Poong Nazareno during the “traslacion.”
But as a convert, the priest insists that the entire experience not only adheres with the Catholic faith, but is a valid expression of the people's need to commune with the divine.
The desire to touch the image, Clemente said, is biblical and not idolatry. In the Scriptures, he said the people then also felt the desire to touch Jesus and when they did, they were healed. Jesus himself, the priest said, felt the need to touch people.
“That is simply a statue. Alam ng mga Pilipino yun. Hindi niya diyos ang rebulto o ang istatwa (Filipinos know that. The statue is not his god),” the monsignor said.
“The way they treat the statue is with great respect because they know that it is their connection to the divine at kasangkapan ito, sagrado ito. Sinasabing sagrado kasi nagiging tulay ‘yan ng grasya at nandyan ang presensya ng Diyos. The presence of God is there.”
This, Ignacio said, is the reason why the devotion to the Black Nazarene should not be considered as fanaticism.
“There's a difference between fanaticism and devotion,” the priest insisted. “Ang object ng panatisismo ay sarili... Dito, hindi. May purpose itong ginagawa nila. Ang Diyos ang tuon ng kanilang pansin. May faith experience, may religious experience. Maaaring loud ang kanilang expression pero hindi panatisimo yun. Ang panatisismo walang tinutungong layunin na makalangit.”
(The object of fanaticism is one’s self. Here, no. They have a purpose. Their attention is to God. They have faith experience, religious experience. Their expression of faith may be loud but it is not fanaticism. Fanaticism has no heavenly intention.)
Pulling the ropes, accompanying the image on top of the carriage for hours, every bump, every sweat and every body pain, all these, Ignacio said, are forms of prayer.
“Yung buong katawan nagdadasal. Theology of the body. 'Yan ang kanilang panata. Iba-ibang levels kasi ang debosyon. 'Yung iba bata pa hindi pa nila masyadong naiintindihan ang kahalagahan ng parts of the Mass. Ang identification ng faith nila nandoon sa debosyon nila, sa prayers nila sa Nazareno.”
(The entire body prays. Theology of the body. That’s their vow. There are different levels of devotion. Some are still young, they do not understand yet the parts of the Holy Mass. They identify their faith with their devotion, their prayers to the Nazarene.)
Clemente is aware that some consider the devotion to the Black Nazarene as a remnant of the animistic faith of Filipinos.
Prior to the coming of the Spaniards and the Catholic faith, Filipinos believed in spirits.
Early Filipinos also believed in the anito, or guardians of a family or a village. Anitos are also believed to be the mediator between the spirits and the living. Filipinos usually create an image that they can hold as a representation of the anito.
Along with Catholicism, Spaniards brought with them images of the Jesus, Mary and the saints. Seeing the images made it easier for Filipinos to accept Catholicism, according to historian, Prof. Xiao Chua.
“Kaya madaling natanggap ng mga Pilipino 'yung Katolisismo kasi may kapalit 'yung anito eh, kasi 'yung Kristo na may estatwa dyan, nakikita nila anito 'yun,” Chua said in an interview published in 2013.
(Filipinos accepted Catholicism because they saw a replacement for the anito. They had images of Jesus Christ, so Filipinos saw the anito in it.)
Chua added that early Filipinos' belief in anting-anting was also incorporated in Catholicism, with the way believers use handkerchiefs and other pieces of cloth to touch the images.
In turn, these pieces of cloth are considered as amulets, where the power of the anito or the spirit is transferred.
“Filipinos, we are a visual people. We have to cling on to something to show our faith,” Chua told ANC.
This is the same practice that can still be seen during the procession of the Black Nazarene, where people risk their lives so they can touch the image of Jesus carrying his cross, with the belief that it can cure them of their illnesses and help solve their woes.
“Some people would say, in Quiapo, it's always there, you can always make pahalik kahit walang pista, hindi Biyernes. I realized that in many ways, the sacrifice that you go through, being pushed around during the procession, for example, the hardships, this is like showing God that you are making sacrifices and atoning for your sins,” Chua said.
The Black Nazarene's skin color makes Filipinos feel closer to it.
“When we look at the Black Nazarene, kulay natin siya, maitim siya tapos naghihirap siya pero alam natin na mabubuhay siya ulit so that is also the hope that every devotee brings into his heart,” Chua said.
(He has the same color as us, dark and struggling. But we also know that he will rise again.)
PURIFYING THE DEVOTION
Ignacio admitted that he does not hold all the answers to the many questions surrounding the devotion to the Black Nazarene, but during his seven years of tenure, he said he tried to correct the abuses that have developed through centuries of tradition.
There are people who sold the dried sampaguitas from the altar. Even the oil used to clean the image of the Black Nazarene were marketed to provinces across the country. Then the usual anting-anting" (amulets), the fortune tellers sprawled around the church, and black candles bought by those who wish ill for the people who have wronged them.
In a symposium at the Loyola School of Theology, Ignacio said the abuses came, not from the expression of people’s faith, but from those who manipulate the devotion.
What is needed now, he said, is for devotees to better understand their faith and to put things in their right perspective. This, he said, is the job of the Church.
“The theologians and the priests have a lot to do in trying to help and guide the people and understand more the catechism,” Ignacio said.
Fanaticism or religiosity, faith or plain madness, the monsignor appealed for people to avoid making instant judgments. He himself, despite being a self-confessed convert, said his understanding of the devotion is still evolving.
Surely, he said, there are things that still need purification. But whether some expressions are delusional or devotional, the monsignor said it is the heart, the interior of the person, that will decide if an expression is right or wrong.
“Probably meron silang hinihiling pero ang kahilingan minsan lang nangyayari at certain points. Pero bakit palagi silang nandoon? ‘Yung pasasalamat nila sa Diyos. At habang sila ay nagpapasalamat sa Diyos, lalo nilang nadarama ang pagmamahal ng Diyos.”
(Maybe they are asking for something but petitions come once in a while at certain points. But why do people keep on coming back? It's because of their gratitude to God. And while they are giving thanks to God, the more they feel the love of God.)