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‘Divino Rostro’ and ‘Ina’ in Times of Cholera and Covid-19

“The devotion to the Divino Rostro in Naga City began during the tenure of Bishop Casimiro Herrera. In 1882, a cholera similar to the one in Spain in 1834 broke out in Manila.

The Vicar General at that time of the Diocese of Nueva Caceres was a certain Fr. Pedro De la Torre who was a native of Osa de la Vega and a devotee of the Divino Rostro. He had with him a copy of the Divino Rostro being venerated in his hometown. Recalling what had happened in Spain, he requested Bishop Herrera to enshrine the holy picture at the cathedral where the people could venerate it for the whole duration of the epidemic. People flocked the church imploring divine intercession that they be spared from the deadly cholera. The bishop also ordered that the intercession of Our Lady of Peñafrancia be sought. And so on August 26, 1882, the image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia was brought to the Cathedral. That was the first time that the Bikolanos prayed to Our Lady of Peñafrancia and the Divino Rostro together in one place. That was also the beginning of a tradition that continues up to the present when, during the Traslacion, both images are borne to the Cathedral.” So goes the history of the devotion to the Divino Rostro in Naga City, as published by the Archdiocese of Caceres.

Fr. Pedro de la Rosa’s request to enshrine the photo of the Divino Rostro ushered generations of Bikolanos to a distinctive recourse as we beg for God’s mercy. Bishop Herrera’s decree to process the images of Ina and the Divino Rostro began a ritual that proclaims that Mary is our way to Jesus. Perhaps, the Vicar General did not envision that his request would change the course of history but undoubtedly, it was his trust in the Divine Healer that moved him. The bishop’s decision was not surprising as he was simply performing his ministry to teach about the faith. But entrusted with the duty to care for the Church, he exercised his authority in a way that permeates until now.

More than a century later, we are trapped in a pandemic that is still far from over, especially for a country like ours. In a hundred years, I wonder what will be written about this period in the history of our Church. Certainly, evangelization was not halted. The Church - clergy and laity – continue to respond to the mission. But amidst all the frenzy, how have we proclaimed the Gospel in the face of Covid19? And when the pandemic finally ceases, what have we etched that will outlive us and fortify the faith of generations to come?

The caution against physical interaction may have basis as science tells us how coronavirus is transmitted. But similar to how we shook our heads in dismay when the IATF imposed a barrier on motorbikes, will future Bikolanos smirk when they read about the prohibition to congregate? True, this year’s Peñafrancia Fiesta is celebrated differently for good reason. But I disagree with the insinuation that the images of Ina and the Divino Rostro had to be kept in their sanctuary to underscore the message that we should stay home.

Our age-old tradition is broken because we have an inept government and an inadequate health care system. This fact should not be lost on us nor should we romanticize the suspension of our religious rituals. To disregard the reality of COVID19 would be foolhardy. But in the same breath, there is no victory in marking 2020 as the year when fear and ineptitude ruled over our lives.

That faith is personal but never private, has become more palpable. The desire for communal reflection, prayer and action is as natural as the need for air. Such longing is what distinguishes a devotee from a tourist, an evangelizer from a fundraiser. For the first, community is essential; to the other, beneficial. Pilgrims on a journey to the Father know it is essential to brave the wilderness and cross uncharted land to inch their way to the Kingdom. There is prudence, but not paralysis.

The friends of the paralytic in Capernaum tore the roof above Jesus, so he may be cured by Him. It was faith in action. What trails must we blaze now that the pandemic has drastically changed the way we live? We can be defeatists or we can forge on, like the Bikolanos who sowed the seeds of the devotion to the Divino Rostro because of - and not in spite of - the threat of cholera morbo.

In 1882, Bikolanos “flocked to church imploring divine intercession that they be spared from the deadly cholera.” Is this comparable to the barrage of online Masses, devotional practices, Gospel reflections and whatever that may be uploaded to the internet? Will all the pixels and bytes survive the test of time? In the 2100s, all the apps we rely on will be obsolete. Will the message be passed on from one generation to another? With humanity’s penchant for novelty, what medium can sustain impact? Social media appears to be the yardstick for what is memorable, but who are we kidding?

Far from the lens of virtual reality, devotees cannot be silenced. Pre-Constantine Christians found a way to express their faith in the catacombs. A quarantine of any degree, declared by any human authority, cannot impede what is right and what is good.

Will this pandemic lead us to a transformation in how we choose and hold accountable our political leaders? Will the physical limitations in our churches bring the Gospel to the darkest corners of the barangays and sitios? Will the rituals of our lifetime become more meaningful, as we distinguish what transmits the virus and what, scientifically, does not? Will the Bikolanos of the future see how we, as a Church, grew in faith so they can stand on our shoulders and not be shaken? A mere decade from the celebration of the tercentenary of the devotion to Ina, we have been tested. I hope history will look kindly on us, and find us not wanting.

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