To the Peripheries

Pope Francis repeatedly says the Church should go to the peripheries. He was not referring to physical boundaries but to those socially marginalized. But for a third world country, they often mean the same. The center holds the power and public services worsen, if they exist at all, in proportion to the distance from the center. The Bikol provinces are proof to this.

The fact that towns minutes away from Naga City depend on the city for medical and banking services is a classic example of the center’s power. One determinant in not holding the Traslacion and Fluvial Procession was the City Government’s warning about the highly probable uptick in Covid-19 cases should people come in throngs. With the reality that we are like sitting ducks in the midst of this pandemic, there was no way the 310th Peñafrancia Fiesta would be celebrated as usual.

SAKAY NI INA ON LAND. The carro in the shape of a boat, pulled by altar boys from the San Antonio Chapel to the Parish Church.

By the decree of the Archbishop of Caceres, parishes held novenary masses. Other Bikol Dioceses did the same. In some parishes, devotees bore the image on their shoulders just like in dawn and perdon processions. Some stood along roadsides, lit candles and waved their handkerchiefs just like what happens during the Fluvial Procession, except that the images of the Divino Rostro and Our Lady of Peñafrancia are on a pickup truck and not the pagoda. The shouts of Viva la Virgen were not as loud. The people were not as many. It was different. But the love for Our Lady was the same.

The St. James the Greater Parish in Libmanan, Camarines Sur held Biseklacion 2020 and Motorcade Procession, as alternatives to “express our gratitude to our beloved Ina,” says Shiela Marie Florence “Nakki” Cornejo, President of the Our Lady of Peñafrancia Association Libmanan Chapter, and member of the Parish Pastoral Council. She says the cancellation of the Traslacion and Fluvial Procession was “frustrating and heartbreaking,” but it did not diminish her devotion. Praying the novena has been her way to “implore Mary’s intercession and maternal protection.”

For Merly Jean “Bem” Plaza, Parish Pastoral Coordinator of the St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in Pili, Camarines Sur, the cancellation forbade her from the usual way of expressing her deep gratitude to Ina. But with the pandemic version of the Traslacion and Fluvial Procession in her town, she recalls that “at least, we were able to bring Ina nearer to the people. The people of Pili, both the young and old, experienced the celebration and expressed our devotion despite the pandemic.”

Dennis del Socorro, retired BFAR Regional Director and now Eucharistic Minister, says he was so moved by the experience, he would have forgotten about the pandemic if not for the frequent reminder to observe health protocols.

Pili Vice Mayor Marivic Solano says the local government had the twin goal of supporting the religious expressions of the people and of protecting them from health risks. Protocols were followed, she says. It was the people’s initiative in response to their devotion, she adds.

These efforts, while praiseworthy, are actually nothing new for devotees outside the Philippines. In many countries worldwide, this has been done year after year. Devotees hold processions, hear novenary masses and celebrate the solemnity of Our Lady. Of course, nothing compares to the celebration in Naga City. But now, the possibility for the devotion to grow deeper and stronger stares at us squarely.

The theme calling for dialogue was in perfect timing. Now is the time for the center to dialogue with the peripheries to bring about a devotion firmly rooted in the Gospel. Now is the chance for the center to dialogue with the peripheries so the devotion will serve “the last, the lost and the least.” Now is the juncture for the devotion to take root in ways unimaginable before.

Do we see an end to the commercialization of the fiesta? This year’s celebration led us to what is essential and we realized that pageants and parades are not one of them. Do we begin to recognize that the devotion does not have to be Naga-centric? As parishes celebrated in various ways, we realize that devotional practices in neighboring towns are equally meaningful. As the pandemic rages on, do we take the opportunity to follow Mary’s example? After Jesus was laid in a borrowed tomb, she did not lock herself up in grief and fear. While concerned for our health and safety, do we rid ourselves of self-absorption? Mary was grieving but she did not cower. She stayed with the disciples, the most hated men at that time.

On March 27, Pope Francis said his urbi et orbi blessing before an empty St. Peter’s Square, in response to the pandemic. Such papal address and apostolic blessing are usually given on Easter and Christmas before large crowds. With Italy in lockdown then, the Pope showed us what is essential and what is not. We celebrated the fiesta sans the Traslacion and Fluvial Procession, but is the rowdiness of the voyadores finally over? We livestream Masses, but are we able to bring Ina across check points, to communities without internet signal?

During the tercentenary ten years ago, we proclaimed our giftedness as the people chosen, in all of history, to be the caretaker of the devotion to Ina. We call ourselves the Pilgrim City of Naga. Covid-19 and the deplorable response of our country have exponentially increased the burden on our shoulders. But as believers of a God who writes straight with crooked lines, we are at a threshold.

The bricklaying for a post-pandemic world does not begin when the vaccine becomes available. We, this very moment, are crafting the future of the devotion. These post-fiesta months are crucial. Are we ready to get off our high horses, as the Church reforms and adapts without losing her identity? Are we willing to scrape the superficiality in structure and rubrics, for an authentic dialogue to take place? Are we able to examine how we, as devotees, have responded to this pandemic?

The devotion does not wait for lockdowns to be lifted nor does it grant access only to those with QR codes. It demands to be felt, heard and seen. It demands to be lived out and shared. Devotees are duty-bound to let it thrive.