MANILA - Millions of Filipino Catholics will once again occupy the streets of Manila this weekend to fulfill their "panata" or religious vows to the Black Nazarene, conveying a replica of the statue of Jesus Christ carrying his cross across the city until it reaches its sanctuary at the Quiapo Church.
Risking heatstroke, trampling and sometimes death, the annual tradition dubbed the "Traslacion" is a display of intense piety for the devotees.
They come with personal requests, and year after year, they return with gratitude for their answered petitions.
Deep historical roots
This deluge of devotion most visibly showcases the high place of religion for most Filipinos.
Nearly 9 in 10 Filipinos (87 percent) consider religion very important in their lives, according to the 2015 Global Attitudes survey of the United States-based Pew Research Center.
Of the 40 countries surveyed, the Philippines ranked 10th in religiosity. Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, such as Ethiopia and Uganda topped the survey.
Filipinos also placed third among ten Asia-Pacific nationalities included, next to Indonesians and Pakistanis.
The study also observed another trait of countries that highly regard religion.
This high sense of faith has deep historical roots, said sociologist Bro. Clifford Sorita. In particular, it can be traced to the three centuries Spain occupied the Philippines--what some have called 300 years in the convent.
Sorita alluded to the quip that the Spaniards conquered the land with the sword but conquered Filipinos’ hearts with the cross.
As the conquistadors spread Spanish rule all over the country, religious orders accompanied them to propagate Catholicism. In time, the priests became as powerful as the officials, and the church and its celebrations a vital part of the community.
Indeed, the image of the Black Nazarene and the rituals of its devotees did rise from the Spanish colonization.
So entrenched is the dominance of Catholicism in the Philippines that the half-century of secular American occupation which followed did not dislodge it.
As a result, religious overtones and imagery are inescapable in daily life today--from hit teleseryes to government offices and even to the preamble to the Constitution.
The survey findings should come as no surprise to many Filipinos who have long prided in the Philippines being the one of the two predominantly Christian nations in Asia.
But with minorities of strong adherents to Islam, as well as other Christian sects like the Iglesia Ni Cristo and various Evangelical groups, the role of religion in the country also stretches beyond Catholicism.
Religiosity and poverty
Could this attachment to faith also account for the economic condition of most Filipinos, or vice versa?
When its results were paired with economic data, the Pew study found that the people in countries that highly depended on religion were generally poorer than those in nations that put less importance on it.
Nations like Japan, Australia, France and Canada were both more prosperous and less religious.
The United States was the exception. Despite being the wealthiest, its citizens were evenly divided on the importance of religion.
The Philippines joined many African countries at the other end.
Sorita agrees that economic circumstances can influence a person’s cling to religious belief to a certain extent. He shares the observation that church attendance is scant during paydays and packed on so-called lean days.
“When a person has a level of material need, he will sometimes hold on to faith,” he said. “Sometimes, people don’t call on God when everything is going well”
But Sorita added that no study has yet to conclusively find a direct relationship between religiosity and poverty.
Still, adherents gain other benefits from religious practice.
Take the devotion to the Black Nazarene. Sorita noted three things that can explain the strong piety of the devotees: the prospect of gaining material needs, like health and finances; the immaterial consequences, such as a change of personality, a change of heart and perspective, or the feeling of being cleansed; and a strong sense of bonding and togetherness in being with others who share that faith.
“Faith brings a sense of hope,” Sorita said.
Faith with understanding
While the jury is out on whether intense religious belief and practice will benefit more than harm the development of any nation, Sorita said the challenge is to keep the “rich” faith of Filipinos from reaching extremes.
Unchecked, it could lead to fanaticism and occultism. Taking faith out altogether from daily life would also have its consequences.
“If you remove the sacred, what is left is humanistic. People can become selfish and lose their morality. We need to balance faith with formation,” Sorita said.
The faithful can gain this by learning more and understanding what their belief and devotions mean and not just relying on the experience.
It’s a call heard every year as the Feast of the Black Nazarene rolls in, and one that bears repeating as millions again put their faith to the test.