Many Bikolanos and non-Bikolanos from faraway places will once again flock to Naga City this week to celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Penafrancia, affectionately called Ina (Mother) by Bikolanos.
Devotees from all walks of life will come home to pay homage to Our Lady. Some will come to fulfill a promise or thank Ina for past favors received. Others will request for Ina’s intercession for physical healing or success in finding a job. The requests are oftentimes meant to help oneself or someone or the family.
Strangely enough, there are some supplications that border on the absurd and probably test Ina’s patience. I remember an acquaintance who sought Ina’s intervention for a successful business venture but didn’t pay his workers a fair wage. Another person I know donated a hefty amount to the Basilica hoping that Ina would grant her request – a case of bribery, pure and simple. As one can see, people ask Ina for almost anything.
It’s none of my business what people ask for. I leave it up to Ina to grant their requests or not. After all, Ina is not an ordinary human. She is the mother of Christ and, as our mother too, she knows what’s good for us. That’s for sure.
What concerns me the most is when I see barefoot voyadores (male devotees) during the Traslacion literally put their lives in harm’s way to touch the image of Ina or her manto (mantle). I cannot help but ask: How does such an act lead to the internal conversion or transformation of the individual, which is really what matters more than the act? Or, are these practices and other religious rituals nothing but traditions that need to be relived yearly? What’s the relevance of these rituals?
I’m not anti-ritual. All religions have rituals. Rituals of any kind are important. If they can help one become a better person, then, by all means, participate in the rituals. Religious rituals, in particular, can be cathartic. It feels good to participate in the Traslacion or the predawn penitential procession. The experience has the numbing effect of making one feel like a renewed person, cleansed from sin without going to confession. For some, the feeling of being able to do something good, like watching the fluvial procession and wave a white handkerchief as Ina passes by, is more than enough.
But devotion to Ina cannot be simply understood in such a “spiritualist” manner or in terms of “it’s a good feeling.”
Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,” states that “presenting to Mary the difficult social situations of the time, including poverty, unemployment, shortage of food, the arms race, contempt for human rights, and conflict situations is a way in which we can all echo the ancient antiphon: “Holy Mother of God, despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin.”
Something is missing, therefore, if, in the midst of our religious euphoria, we totally forget Ina’s lived experiences. We cannot ignore her political experience of giving birth to a hunted King. Ina was in the thick of political dangers all the time because of her son’s activities. Remember her embrace of her son’s tortured and mangled body as He lay on His mother’s lap (the Pieta)? That’s the Ina that we should pay homage to and emulate; someone who can relate to our particular conditions here and now whatever they may be; someone who cares for the victims of any kind of oppression and violence.
As a mother, Ina must have felt the pain of all those mothers and widows who have lost their loved ones through extra-judicial killings and other forms of unjustified killings. Why wouldn’t she? After all, she raised her son in oppressive circumstances.
As a mother, Ina probably finds it concerning when women are subject to all forms of sexual, physical, mental, and psychological abuses. Why wouldn’t she? After all, she must have suffered mental torture when her son was arrested, tortured and died on the cross.
As a mother, she probably empathizes with the poor. Why wouldn’t she? She was not rich and must have struggled to pay the taxes and must have seen the rich become richer at the expense of the poor.
What I do know is that Ina — regardless of what some non-believers or doubters have made of it — is very much present in our lives. She is not an icon out there with magical powers that we need to honor to grant our wishes. Pope Francis reminds us in his encyclical “Evangelii Gaudium” that Ina knows well the difficulties and adversities we face. He described Ina “as a true mother, she walks at our side, she shares our struggles and she constantly surrounds us with God’s love.” Perhaps, this might be hard to believe, but that’s what she’s all about.
As I write this article, I will read in tomorrow’s paper that another drug suspect will die in the hands of trigger-happy police officers; that another human rights advocate or lawyer will be killed by unknown assailants; and that another individual will rot in jail for not having the connection to be released under special government programs. I feel numb through my spine for not having the power to prevent these injustices.
With my years of experience as a young lad observing the feast of Ina every September, I never realized that the historical Ina experienced violence, poverty and the execution of her son. This is the context that from now on I want to honor Ina as I hear her devotees shout, “Viva la Virgen.”
What a liberating feeling to know that, in a world replete with many problems, there is someone out there who, in some mysterious ways, presents herself as a real mother. She showed us how she lived during her time, not in seclusion or isolation, but as Pope John Paul II put it, whose “…maternal concern, which extends to the personal and social aspects of all human life on earth, will deliver hope and remedy in the face of any social woe.”
I suppose that it’s about time to ask Ina to give us the courage to humbly imitate her and be relevant like her.
Viva la Virgen!