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Plagues from the Past and the Present

The history of afflictions in this region – and in the whole country - comes alive this month through a framed image that measures 61cm long and 47 cm wide. Within the frame, on a canvas is the image of Veronica, she who in one of the oldest stories of sacrifice, is a woman who ran to Jesus Christ as he made his way through the tortuous road to death. The young woman, it is said, approached Christ to wipe the blood and sweat from his brow and face. As the Christ turned around to resume his punishment, Veronica found the image of the Man about to be crucified imprinted on her veil.

Today, the first of April, we are told the two icons of our Lady of Peñafrancia and that of Divino Rostro or Divine Face, will be brought out again in a procession. There is an urgent, sad reason for this: a pandemic is causing sickness and death all over the world, our country and this region not spared from the fact and threat.

With due respect to the theology that marks the Peñafrancia celebration, the Divino Rostro, for lack of a better term, has always played a secondary role in the huge Marian devotion in September. But history will tell us that many years ago, in 1882, an epidemic in the form of “cholera morbo” or cholera disease was ravaging the Philippines. It soon reached the region and this city. The bishop then, Msgr. Casimiro Herrera, decided to bring the image of the Virgin Mary in the manifestation of the Lady of Peñafrancia to the cathedral. The bishop prayed that the power and love of the Mother would envelop the faithful and save them from the terror of sickness and death.

While all this was happening, Fr. Pedro de la Torre, Provisor and Vicar General of the Diocese of Nueva Caceres thought of the copy of the Divino Rostro that was with him. Whereupon, he offered to display the Divino Rostro with the prayer that what this icon did in Spain many years ago would again take place in this new city of new converts.

There is a story behind the Vicar- General’s faith: In the town of Osa de la Vega, the original image of Divino Rostro was venerated for its power during three difficult years in 1800. Historical data found in prayer books and novenas speak of three difficult years – 1834, 1855 and 1865 – when cholera morbo spread in Spain. For some mysterious reasons, the town of Osa de la Vega was spared from these years of epidemic. The people looked to the Divino Rostro as their Protector from all maladies.

The devotees to the Lady of Peñafrancia who are also devotees to the Divino Rostro know these tales by heart. They read it as they pray to the two icons. Through the historical years, the devotees must have prayed for the icons to give them strength as they faced revolutions, world wars, and martial rule.

How many times must the Bikolano have invoked the divine strength of the two icons as they sought shelters in their homes as earthquakes and typhoons came upon them, threatening not only their faith in their salvation but also their fear of fate?

For the many who believe, how many have treated the story of the power of Divino Rostro as a metaphor for religion?

This region have seen many catastrophe. When a strong typhoon appears to bring the strongest of wind, we face the East and all the corners of the world and pray to Ina. During those moments, I doubt if the icon of the Divino Rostro ever crossed our mind. Perhaps, it is part of our childlike – and childish – faith that when we invoke the Mother, we assume that She, the Woman of the Universe and Heavens, will look to Her Son and everything will be fine again.

How many among us, in fact, dutifully thank the Virgin and Her Son when supertyphoons change their path and save us once more as other parts of the country suffer tremendous destruction?

To us, science has always determined our life. Science has explained for us how the world tilts and gets disturbed. Science has also placed the more mysterious side of our person, which is religion, against the wall. We pray but we do not invoke religion.

We learn from disciplines that enable us to think we are in control.

And yet, here we are at the edge of the precipice of long sociological evolution. Airplanes have been stopped from flying. Where necessary, airports have been shuttered. Classes were abruptly called off; graduations were called off. Universities closed and education became irrelevant and useless.

Priests stopped saying Masses. If there were Masses, there was just the priest and his acolyte alone, truly alone, in churches. We could not stop seasons but we, the Catholics and Christians, could stop Lent and we did. The Holy Week will go on in distant spaces, with the brethren observing the new faith of spacing.

Today and the next days, the Mother in the Lady of Peñafrancia will walk our lonely streets with her son, displayed as the divine face stamped upon the humble veil of a young woman.

How terrific it is to think that metaphors can come alive, that a painting in aged silver frame, can look down upon us and promise salvation not from eternal damnation but from something so indignantly basic – a virus produced from the toxins of the humblest animals abused by the arrogant human person.

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