In the Philippines- the biggest Catholic population in Asia – there are various kinds of religious festivals such as the celebration of the passion and death of Jesus Christ during the Holy Week.
In Pampanga, about 65 kilometers north of Manila, the Holy Week celebration combines church beliefs and folk traditions. Especially on Good Friday there are extreme practices such as self-flagellations and real crucifixions. For that reason, we (5 jesuits, 2 sisters, and 1 layperson) went to Pampanga on a Good Friday; none among us are Filipinos. Fortunately, we were able to go there without any difficulties because of the guidance (via sms) from Bro. Sherwin (a Filipino Jesuit who himself is from Pampanga).
We left from Arrupe House at 7 a.m. and arrived at the Cathedral of San Fernando, Pampanga at 10 a.m. By the time we arrived, there had already been hundreds of flagellants accompanied by their relatives and friends coming in front of the Cathedral hitting their backs with sharp bamboo sticks and pieces of wood with their faces covered. Some penitents carried wooden crosses and walked barefoot. Their backs are covered by blood even splattering it to the spectators nearby including me as I got closer to take the pictures. I was about to vomit because of the smell of the blood.
Around 11.15 we moved by jeepney from the Cathedral to San Pedro Cutud, the place where they held the reenactment of Jesus crucifixion. It was very hot, dusty and so crowded. The reenactment began at 1 p.m. when the sun was hot as hell and finished thirty minutes after.
As I read on the newspapers and some online articles, these practices of extreme penitence are not mere street performances or attractions for tourists. It’s done by penitents annually as their “panata” or their religious pledge between themselves and God to seek petitions for the sick, intentions for a better life, to give thanks for what they believe were God-given miracles, and to atone for their sins.
Some of the penitents have already been crucified for several times. Among the penitents, there is Ruben Enaje who was nailed to a cross for the 30th time in the annual Good Friday ritual. He has practiced this vow of sacrifice or “panata” as part of giving thanks to God after surviving a fall from a building in 1985. In the past years, he also had himself crucified to seek a cure for his daughter’s and wife’s health condition. With his loved ones cured and his entire family, including five grandchildren not missing any meals, Enaje found himself doing the crucifixion more beyond personal intentions. “To me, it’s a daily miracle that we do not miss any meals”, Enaje said (Philippine Daily Inquirer, Wed, March 23, 2016, A9). This year he dedicated his “panata” to peace in Belgium and other countries targeted by ISIS, not to mention the peaceful elections in the Philippines.
The reenactment of Christ crucifixion in Pampanga is not a liturgical celebration. There is neither priest nor representative from the local church who leads the prayer or celebration. The dramatic presentation is organized by the local government. The Catholic Church, represented by the local bishops, does not encourage such bloody practices, which has begun annually since 1950s, because they are too extreme. The local bishops are urging their faithful to engage in acts of mercy and give to the poor instead of inflicting pain on themselves.
I asked my friend from Pampanga. He said that the church presents alternative practices. For example, instead of doing self-flagellation, we could donate blood to the blood bank. The church also endorses other practices that are more liturgical. There is what they call “pabasa” or the reading of the passion of Christ in sing-song form. The faithful are also encouraged to participate in the Holy Week liturgy of Thursday to Sunday. They could go visit churches, go to confession, etc.
It’s really interesting to learn how the local church deals with this kind of folk traditions. However, as some theologians had said that instead of closing the doors, the Church is challenged to encounter the cultures of people, to understand the history of their struggles including the folk piety they lived in.