A roadside shrine, with images of the Blessed Mother, the Black Nazarene of Quiapo, several Santo Ninos, and a Crucifix; San Andres, Manila
We attended the Easter Vigil at the Pro-Cathedral (apparently, one of two) of the Archdiocese Manila, San Fernando de Dilao, The Cardinal Archbishop of Manila, H.E. Luis Antonio Tagle, was the celebrant; it was a beautiful service that lasted just shy of three and a half hours. The church— a beautiful building known for its imposing bell towers— was built in the 1930s by the Belgian CICM Fathers (Congregatio Immaculati Cordis Mariae), during, I imagine, the heyday of the liturgical movement, in a kind of “baroque moderne” style.
Paco district itself had something of a reputation in the mid twentieth century as something of a haven for intellectuals. Many senators and justices and even two National Artists made their home in Paco; and in the 17th century, it was a known enclave of Japanese immigrants, exiled from Japan for their Catholic beliefs. Its most prominent resident was Dom Justo Takayama, a former daimyo whose father converted to Catholicism, and who himself loved that faith so dearly.
San Fernando de Dilao— literally, Saint Ferdinand of the Yellow— was dedicated to the legendary saint-king of Spain, San Fernando el Rey; but the denizens of Paco have always revered a “higher power” in the person of the Senor del Santo Sepulcro— an image of the Dead Christ in stunning black— which is kept in an alcove accessible by a small stair next to a side altar in the church. The main road leading to the church is still, mercifully, called Calle Santo Sepulcro, a testament to the people of Paco’s devotion to this title of Christ.
If my memory serves me right, a strange incident involving this effigy of the Dead Christ occurred in the early part of the last century. Nicomedes Marquez “Nick” Joaquin, arguably the greatest and most eminent Paco denizen to have lived, wrote, somewhere (an article in a newspaper), that, during one Good Friday procession, the image of the Santo Sepulcro took a “detour”, not to the Catholic Church, but to the rival Aglipayan church.
The Aglipayan church, more formally known as the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, came about as a direct result of the Revolution. Its leader, Gregorio Aglipay, was a former Roman Catholic priest who championed an indigenous clergy for the Philippines; unfortunately, Aglipay seceded from Rome, and in 1902, proclaimed the complete and formal separation of the church from Roman Catholic polity. In practice, they were a mirror image of the Catholicism they renounced. At the height of its power, Aglipay was said to have announced that half of all the churches in the Philippines now belonged to the IFI. When the Roman Catholic friars were kicked out of the country, the Filipinistas simply went into the vacated churches and took over. This only intensified the rivalry between the Romanos and the Filipinistas; and on important days, most especially Good Friday, when the Dead Christ was processed, meetings between the two often turned violent. I once read an anecdote of a meeting between the two processions. A foreign bishop (probably Constance Jurgens? not sure) was leading the Catholic contingent when, all of a sudden, the Aglipayan procession came into view. Neither side would budge, would make way for the other to pass; the thurfiers were swinging more violently than usual, the people started getting restless. Then suddenly violence erupted, and the people started throwing stones at each other. The foreign bishop himself was hit, but was quickly pulled to safety. To this day, it is still considered an omen when the two processions meet, and so the Aglipayans often hold their Burial Procession earlier than the Catholic procession.
Today the rivalry between Romanos and Aglipayanos has largely been toned down. The IFI simply doesn’t have the numbers to match their Roman counterparts anymore; new players have entered, and taken the attention of the Catholics away from this last, tangible vestige of the Revolution— the Aryan-influenced Iglesia ni Cristo, and the rise of Evangelical Protestantism. Horror of horrors, Catholics and Aglipayans even held a joint procession of the Holy Child in 2011, in Pandacan, another storied Manila district whose twin patrons often “went to war” against each other.
Many people today tend to dismiss religion as incapable of anything other than causing risible divisions and partisanship; that may be true, but it is one of the few forces left that can also galvanize collective action and seemingly disparate factors into a cohesive “identity.” I can’t help but think of that line from The Departed: Frank Costello attempts to convince Colin Sullivan to join him; he says to the young Colin: “In the old days we had the Church, which meant we had each other.” There is something so profoundly true about that.
There is a peculiar energy to the celebration of the Holy Mass here in the tropics; those who have been to Manila and attended any one of her Catholic churches on a Sunday can attest to the heady mixture of strange noises and even stranger scents: the cacophony of boisterous preaching on the one hand, and the ceaseless honking of horns and vendors hawking their wares on the other, especially in the bigger churches; and who could forget the smell of burnt wax and incense and the tide of bodies sweating in the the naves.
At times, when I was younger, I often found myself paying as much attention to the peripheral noise as I did to the priest’s sermon. Here and there, the muffled crying of a baby; perhaps in one corner, an old lady sobbing for her sins; a toddler a few pews ahead is asking his nanny to accompany him to the bathroom. At the entrance of the church, not-very-religious make a quick stop on their knees to pray for luck; someone lights a candle to saint, or to one of the many titles of the Virgin. A bird or two might enter by the window and fly overhead, and on the ground, a cat rests its weary head on a forlorn kneeler.
Herein, perhaps, lies the staying power of religion: we are not so much born into a set of abstract propositions and vague, ivory tower politics as we are into a matrix— a womb, even— of sights, smells, and sounds. The religious man is born into a stage, complete with all its actors and props and mise en scene. Miraculously, strangely, luminously, religion somehow brings serenity and order into an otherwise jarring concoction of ill-fitting components. In it is found grace, which meanders from heaven to earth, sacred to profane, and the eternal to the miracle of the present. Only in the Mass, I’ve found, has the furious screaming of a toddler wanting its Kool Aid taken on a gentleness which could not but speak of God. Faith here is literally at a crossroads, with the church serving as a bridge, straddling the unfathomable chasm between the realm of the invisible and the holy, and the marred and tactile world of the profane. And it is that slow, steady trickling of divine grace from on high that seems to make it so worthwhile.
In the Mass heaven and earth are wed and become one. The screaming baby becomes a mighty, flaming seraph, crying ‘Holy, holy, holy!’, the worshippers become one with the great cloud of witnesses that sing the glory of God, and the sinner becomes like Dismas, who, in spite of his terrible crimes, was blessed enough to have died at the side of the Lord. What a delightful mystery it is.
Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary with Saint Dominic and Saint Rose, by an anonymous painter of the Cuzco school; Museo de Arte de Lima, 18th century
A young man, dressed in the garb of penitents, accompanies and guards the Santo Entierro— the Dead Christ, arrayed as if for a funeral— during the Good Friday procession of burial in Zaragoza, Spain
The exquisite tabernacle of Maria am Gestade (Saint Mary on the Shore), which features both Gothic and Baroque elements.
Jean Fouquet, Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels (detail), c.1450
I was surprised to learn that the Nazareno procession had ended less than half an hour ago.
Bearing in mind that this thing started at 7.30am sharp on Wednesday, the 9th of January, this puts the length of the procession at over 18 hours. A significant improvement over last year’s 22 hour debacle, to be sure— but let’s not kid ourselves: 18 hours is a grueling length of time.
The police estimated that crowds to have peaked at 9 to 10 million. Million. I suppose this number is more or less halved between those who took part in the procession itself (including those who waited along the streets where the Senor would pass by), and the other half who waited/attended Mass within the vicinity of the Basilica. Of course, such a huge number could not be supported at any one time by that area. Thus the question that needs to be asked is how many turn overs of people were there?
The Nazareno procession is always such a spine-chilling event. It’s probably the closest thing to a Catholic version of the Hajj, with strong Jagganath Puri influences liberally applied. It really does hearken back to a more primitive, savage form of religion: the Dionysian, which is all pagan riot and revelry. Considered one of the last preserves of macho religion in Philippine society, the procession is loud, violent, and severely taxing. You do not know “bone-breaking piety” until you’ve taken part in it. The devotees go barefoot and hurl themselves as the blackened statue of Christ carrying the cross, heedless of all hurt. It’s their way of honoring Christ, who bore His cross resolutely—back straight, with eyes looking up to heaven. They do it to prove to Him that they are just like Him— or more precisely, that He is just like them.
At the same time, such muscular display of piety and devotion is also, curiously, extremely effervescent, to borrow a phrase from a certain newspaper columnist. Their devotions over, the men come back to their old ways of living: swearing, cheating, womanizing, not caring at all for the Sunday obligation and living lives devoid of the sacraments. Some say that this is proof of this tradition’s worthlessness, that it ought to be scrapped completely and discarded as something trivial. But that would be to expect too much of grace— to expect it to completely overwhelm, crush our fallen natures, and replace it with something staid and sterile.
But that is not how faith works. I know that now. The critics scoff and frown and leer with comfortable, middle class disdain at the grotesque practices of the great, Catholic unwashed, because they have never known what it’s like to line up next to a dumpster in the hopes of buying a half-eaten chicken drumstick for dinner and breakfast the next day. They cannot know how to see everything as grace, to see even the most pathetic of things as blessings.
It is these eyes—drawn heavenward, in mystic contemplation, it seems— that the simple possess. And it is with these eyes that they see and understand that supreme faith can rest on something so simple as one, desperate act of courage— to climb above obstacles and face the splendid, foaming fury of a ten million strong march— and touching, for the briefest of moments, the space between seconds, the face of God.
And what a sight it is!
Today the City of Manila celebrates its greatest feast: the annual procession of the Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareneo de Quiapo—otherwise known as the Black Nazarene— which is joined by millions every year. Brought to the country in 1606 by the Augustinians, and carved by an anonymous Mexican sculptor from Acapulco, the Nazareno is believed to be miraculous. Legend holds that this life size statue of Christ received its coloration after surviving a fire that torched the ship that carried it. The image of the Nazareno has survived multiple earthquakes, fires, and bombings, and most recently, the ravages of World War II. Indeed, it is often said that, when the Quiapo district was bombed, and the Senor’s basilica destroyed, it alone, and the tabernacle, remained standing.
The mammoth procession is truly a sight to behold. Devotees routinely throw themselves at the carriage of the Lord, hoping to kiss or wipe its cross. But whereas Spaniards and Italians might do so to atone for their sins, Filipinos share with Mexicans the motive of thanksgiving. As late as 2008, the procession finished in as quickly as 8 hours; the 2012 procession, however, set the record for being the longest, lasting 22 long hours.
(Picture: Jose Lozano Honorato - Yglesia Parroquial de Quiapo; 1847)
Francisco Rizi, The Dream of Saint Joseph, c. 1665
Marco Pino, The Mystical Body of Christ, c. 1571
Piero Buonaccorsi (Perino del Vaga), The Lamentation, c. 1530s
Ercole Ramazzani, The Last Judgement, 1597