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Divining the Virus and the Virgin

The news is out: from the institutional Church, there will be no Traslacion this year, no fluvial procession.

The State, as represented by the local government unit of Naga City, declares there will be no trade fairs, no civic and military parades.

The notification is about the Peñafrancia celebration this September.

The land procession, called the Traslacion, when the image of the Virgin of Peñafrancia, is transferred from its Shrine by the river to the Metropolitan Cathedral will not happen. The Virgin will remain in the Basilica. The Divino Rostro – a manifestation of the face of Christ imprinted on the veil of this woman named Veronica, a name which in Latin means “the true image” and in Greek, “one who brings victory” or “true image” – will stay in the old shrine.

No penitential processions will be held in between the second Friday of September and the nine days that follow that. There will be no image in the black cathedral, its color antedating the sorrow of this unprecedented pause. No tiny image to toss around, and rock and forth, in a wanton display of braggadocio and faith, questioned by some, upheld by many, beloved by cultural officers of tourism and pageantry.

In the old narratives of the devotion, the Virgin has been the infinite succor of the many in moments of personal distress and in times of social crisis. The Virgin is the Mother of the land, the person to whom our people run to in anguish and embrace. She never fails anyone.

To the Divino Rostro is attributed the miracle of saving the region (or was it just the city?) from cholera in the 1800s. It is said that the disease stopped right at the doorstep of the locality.

When a typhoon veers away from us and gives us slight drizzle, we know that our prayers to the Mother has been answered. It is a naïve, if not selfish, predisposition but that attitude has ruled the life of many Bikolanos.

A virus, however, has come so virulent it renders us unsure of our old faith. This infection has a proven world record to be the mighty one. We now cannot err on the side of a cautionary faith; we – or at least our leaders –have resolved to be pragmatic not to risk the body in favor of the soul. The spiritual resolve does not look promising; science is the braver option.

When the Archbishop and the Mayor issued the letter declaring the imposition of limitation on the conduct of the Peñafrancia festival and the message got posted online, there was an immediate question: Has the Peñafrancia been cancelled?

Before I could read judgment on that question, my brother, Carlo, who is based in London, had a message: There is no cancellation, right? We are only doing away with the physical components – the feasting and fireworks, the procession and pageantry. What this announcement meant was we would have the novena, which is really the meaning of Peñafrancia, tama?

I had a quick response to him: We are thinking the same thing.

This September, we will honor the Virgin of Peñafrancia with what was intended for her in the first place – the sincere prayers that will run the course of nine days. In the commensalism of our home. There will be Masses livestreaming. During those days we will pour to Her hear our plea, as we enact who we are before Her, and how She is to us – a mediation of mediation, a mother of mothers, a faith human.

The devotee whose response was incredulous is the devotee in us weaned on the histories of conversion that have convoluted what is really a faith so basic it is as simple as love. The cancellation of the more outward, even narcissistically demonstrative display of bodies in supplication is what priests ask us to commit each year. Do they mean it? We do not know. What is clear is that the words of the institutional church are rarely heeded. The call of the carnival that lures us into the bacchanalia shatters the line between the sacred and the profane.

The power of that tiny image in the Basilica has not been dissipated. Ina did not fail us; we failed her. Totally. We languished with our lavish display of bad taste during parades. We rode on the waves of arrogance and entitlement when we declared this devotion as the most unique in the land. This city was even declared a pilgrim site by both the church and local officials, each party secure with its own agenda of evangelization and commercialization.

Not the church, not any philosophy, but a virus is cleansing this faith. It is teaching us to be humble, to be circumspect. It is asking us to be simple, to go back to praying simply for nine days. We can do this in our home, with our kin, without the ostentation and frivolity of a circus. We are asked to commune with this formidable, All-Merciful Mother, she whose image we have placed on a cheap copy of a globe for many years so we could exhibit to the world what we always deem to be our faith.

So, has the Peñafrancia festivities been cancelled? No. We have just cancelled ourselves and our gross idea of what a devotion should be.

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