Millions of people poured onto the streets of Manila yesterday, packing them. Some, city residents; others from far afield. They were there to seek a miracle, to cast their eyes on the Philippines’ most revered Roman Catholic icon, to touch it or dab it with a cloth, to pay their respect and give gratitude to their Saviour, or to take part in the biggest religious procession of the year; one of the biggest in the world. Whatever their reason, there was nowhere else they had to be.
Many in the outside world – not least the media – will have a problem comprehending this event. To them it might seem tribal, medieval, a throw back to an unenlightened age. But it’s none of that, it’s here and now and it’s palpably relevant. We shall try to explain.
For more than 80% of this nation of 103 million, 9 January is one of the most important days on the calendar. It’s the day that a 410-year-old statue of Jesus Christ and his Cross is taken on a 20-hour tour through the streets of the Philippine capital. This is the Traslación (passage) of the Black Nazarene, a life-size replica of the Son of God and the symbol of Calvary. It’s moving, it’s mighty and for those 20 hours it’s the only thing that matters in Manila.
The thieves and pickpockets would have been out in force among the swelling crowds; they always are. They’re in St. Peter’s Square in Rome; they work the gift shops of the Vatican Museum; they ply their craft in the Domain of Catholicism’s most revered shrine, Our Lady of Lourdes in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. Pilgrims have fallen foul to them on every journey of penance that believers have ever embarked on. Maybe they’re a part of the Divine Plan; certainly, they’re a part of the human condition. The point is, Jesus was crucified by the side of a thief. They have their place there too.
The street sellers would have been there also – the water boys and the vendors of snacks: ginanggang, banana on a stick, charcoal grilled and brushed with margarine and peppered with sugar; balat ng baboy, barbequed crispy pig’s skin; the iconic balut, three-week-old hard-boiled eggs (duck or chicken), the bird part-formed, and many more. Commerce is as much a part of the fabric there on this day as it is at Marian shrines and places of Christian pilgrimage around the world. And anyway, the people need to eat. This isn’t a day of fasting, unless individuals so choose; this is a day to touch Jesus or the Cross – if not with a finger tip, at least with the eyes.
T-shirts emblazoned with the face of the Black Nazarene were on sale; there were calendars, wristbands, small replicas of the statue and much more religious paraphernalia. Commerce and faith are not mutually exclusive at the ends of this procession and along its way. They live in the same world as the people. And mementos of this day, to wear and carry home, are part of it.
The only traffic on the statue’s circuitous route, from the 10,000-capacity Quirino Grandstand in Rizal Park, which would thread back to the home that bears its name – the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, in the city’s ‘Old Downtown’ district – was human traffic. Many of them barefoot. For those the Traslación is an opportunity to do penance; to make payment for sin and to seek absolution for that sin from the Black Nazarene. This is what took them to Manila and when they get back to their homes – some, an arduous day’s journey away – they will feel cleansed, renewed, restored. Pope Pius VII granted plenary indulgence to those who come to venerate it and pray in its presence 137 years ago.
Others will have made the journey as a prayer for a miracle – to make their petitions, to seek a cure for a desperately ill child or ask that an elderly relative be taken back home to Heaven; that their suffering might be accepted now as sufficient to receive the healing grace of God and a release to Paradise. This isn’t some long-shot for them; this is what they know is possible. Maybe they would take that child to some renowned medical facility in the West if they had the money – if they won the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Lottery Draw – but it wouldn’t be their first choice. Their first choice was here. For them just by being in the statue’s presence and to offer their intercessory prayers, is already a blessing.
And while the Black Nazarene was going around Manila, there was a similar procession, bearing a replica image, taking place 490 air miles to the south in Cagayan de Oro City in Northern Mindanao, the only other venue sanctioned by the Church – though celebrations of this day, feasts and prayers, were held in many other parts of the country.
Unsurprisingly, the international mainstream media doesn’t really know what to make of all this. Of course they cover it – mostly pictorially; it’s a spectacle after all, and big crowds sell papers; get clicks. But they never attempt to analyse what this is really all about. What it actually means. But then they can’t; they don’t know what it means. To most it’s little more than some quirky tradition; an arcane rite the likes of which their enlightened communities dispensed with centuries ago and would never countenance again. Heavens! In the ‘informed’ cities of the West you can be vilified for wearing a crucifix; most public places have been ‘cleansed’ of the right to install a nativity scene at Christmas.
From New York to Los Angeles you can have processions for everything from Gay Pride to Wholesale Abortion to the Rights of Laboratory Animals. But try getting a licence to carry a statue of Jesus or the Blessed Virgin through their streets. You’ve got more chance of running into the Pope at a black jack table in Atlantic City.
So what is it about? The answer in a word is “Faith” – something which many of the Philippines’ critics have little understanding of. If truth be told, for them yesterday’s procession in Manila was little more than an outlandish spectacle. They might humour it – after all, it took place in a not-yet-developed country – something they would never do in their own lands; after all in those places the people are meant to know better. But this is the mindset in much of the West and has been for some time.
Just before Christmas, 1994, in California – naturally, where else? – San Jose’s Plaza de Cesar Chavez Park Board took away a statue of the Infant Jesus from its grounds, only to replace it with a statue of Quetzalcoati, a plumed-serpent Aztec god that had been commissioned by the state for US$500,000. Christmas or not, California’s Christians evidently required a lesson in religious inclusiveness. Imagine if Manila City Council or the mayoralty of Quezon City decided to replace the statue of Our Lady of Peace at the Edsa Shrine with a sculpture of Amomongo, the violent man-ape creature of Philippine mythology. Few in the foreign media would be disturbed by that, but it would cut to the heart of Filipino Catholics.
For the critics, the Traslación of the Black Nazarene is filed with those stories of head hunters with their penis gourds in Papua New Guinea, or lost Amazonian tribes. It’s bizarre. For them the statue should be an installation in Ripleys Believe it or Not; the Holy Spirit should be on cable TV along with haunted houses in a show about the paranormal – UFOs and cryptids.
But this ignorance of the religious culture of the Philippines goes a long way to explain why the mainstream media and the politicos of the industrialised world remain so out of touch with Filipino sentiments – particularly where President Rodrigo Duterte is concerned.
For example, his questioning of the Roman Catholic Church’s authority, whether that of Rome or the Archdiocese of Manila, the Philippines’ primatial see, they interpret – or more likely spin – as evidence that he is anti- or non-Catholic in some way. That way they can attempt to divide his followers; call his faith into question. But it means nothing of the sort; those remarks have nothing to do with religion or faith. They concern the problems and difficulties which his people face in the corporeal world. They, the faithful, get that; they, the faithless, don’t.
Of yesterday’s procession he said this: “Prayers are likely answered because we do not give up or get tired from asking God for the fulfillment of our heart’s desires. Such is the phenomenal expression of faith of the millions of devotees in the form of gratitude, petition, and sacrifice shown in the image of the Black Nazarene every feast day on the 9th of January every year”.
What took place on the streets of Manila yesterday was the manifestation of the people’s spirit as they expressed their belief in the god they love. They weren’t there for the cameras; the cameras were there for them. It went on from pre-dawn throughout the blistering heat of the day and into the night. There were showers of rain but there were also splashes of holy water from nuns along the route.
This was a people coming together in a massive show of unity and they only do that in the Philippines when they have faith; love. And that is what the critics – media and others – wherever they are, at home or abroad, need to understand. Because if they miss that they will never get a clear grasp of this country, its religion or its politics. They will never be able to interpret this time.