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2020 Feast of Our Lady of Peñafrancia: A Time for Introspection, Part 3

San Diego, California. In Part 2, two of the five symbols in the Peñafrancia 2020 logo were presented involving the cross as the source of Christian unity among religions and denominations. Twenty-twenty being the Year of Ecumenism, the celebration endeavors for such unity through constant dialogue and cooperation. Many will probably read this part and wonder what this is all about?

Ecumenism emphasizes the universality of the Christian faith. This is such a big and far-reaching word with encompassing meaning particularly for a lay person. Ecumenism is a movement that officially goes back to the early 60’s launched under the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), as an effort to heal the pain of the past. Vatican II was an attempt to modernize and reform the church but such action did not anticipate over 90,000 nuns to leave the Catholic Church having lost their special place in the church.

The main thrust of the movement is to shepherd those who left the Roman Catholic Church during the Reformation and the eventual split or the East-West schism, as part of spiritual renewal. Consequently, the Christian Church fragmented into three branches: Catholic, Protestant, and (eastern) Orthodox. But 60 some years later, we are still trying to foster unity among churches.

This task seems to be way beyond the reach of lay people but the historical knowledge of the split continues to reinforce division due to doctrinal and painful memories of church abuses. While there has been some successes at the Vatican initiative, harmony at the grassroots levels almost always ends up being a catfight as to who is the better religion.

Ecumenism is supposed to be focused on positive aspects that unite as Christians but interreligious dialogue at the lay people level is murky at best. How does a lay person reach out to other religions or denominations about the devotion when some, if not most of them does not believe in Marian devotion especially with the use of images? Many Christians still laugh at some devotional practices as idolatry. Heck, some members of the clergy are not even Marian devotees!

One area, however, that bishops can have an impact is by establishing guidelines for priests, nuns, and lay people when using social media platforms. In particular, matters involving Muslims, China and electoral issues. Many Filipino Catholic priests and nuns are guilty of subscribing to fake news, urban legends, and conspiracy theories. Each of them has their own social network that includes lay people who take any from them as gospel truth.

There is no clash of civilization between Muslims and Christians. Muslims are not about to invade to take over America and impose Sharia Law. There are extremist groups among the Muslim people and similarly with Christians and there will be terrorism involved. Social media is littered with fake news and Christians can help by discerning what would be the Christian thing to do. Forwarding such disinformation materials in social media fans hatred towards other people and other cultures.

China is not a Christian country but there are Christian Chinese in China with about 18 million being Catholics. China does not have a diplomatic relations with the Holy See but that did not prevent them from having agreements involving the Chinese Catholic faithful. Pope Francis has signaled his willingness for such breakthrough despite pushbacks from the United States.

The Indigenous Peoples (IPs) represented in the logo in the context of Our Lady of Peñafrancia devotion are the Agtas of Mount Isarog who as the early Cimarrones, paved the way for the devotion to take root in Naga City. They were converted to Christianity and holds a special place not only in the history of the devotion but in Mary’s as well.

This humble beginning was another point of liberation in the history of the devotion. In particular, this point emphasized that the Cimarrones were outcast members of society who were confined to the foothills of Mount Isarog. It was them who asked for a chapel of nipa and bamboo so they could venerate The Lady. Using the picture brought by Fr. Miguel Covarrubias, a local artisan carved an image using local wood and painted it with dog’s blood.

While we continue to credit the early beginnings of the devotion to the Cimarrones, what has become of them was no longer relevant because they fulfilled their role of giving character to the devotion and were liberated from such obligation after the devotion has taken off. Just like before though, the Agtas are still underserved people scattered in their own diaspora within the Bicol Region, with some still living in the foothills of Mt. Isarog, Mt. Sumagang, and other hills or mountains in Camarines Sur or Camarines Norte. This clearly was not Mary’s intent. Her devotees was supposed to follow her lead in helping her chosen people.

If you are surprised by that, go back to the early beginnings of the devotion where the original point of liberation took place. Simon Vela’s finding of the statue of Pena de Francia in Salamanca, Spain is important to the genesis of this devotion. Simon was led to that mountain by recurrent dreams that guided him to get there and eventually found the statue after a great deal of effort. Perhaps lost in the history telling is why that statue was buried there centuries ago in the first place.

Spain (and Christianity) was under siege at the time from marauding Moors who were plundering villages and destroying places of worship. While Castilian knights inspired by El Cid were busy fighting the invading forces, Christians were frantically trying to protect statues and images of worship by burying them (conceivably for future find).

Simon’s French background is irrelevant. What he did to fulfil God’s wishes that manifested in his dreams is. Simon was from a rich family who gave away his inheritance to the Church and other charity when his parents died. This was a remarkable gesture for Simon especially that in this day and age, who would give away their inheritance to fulfil a dream?

If there were two things that we should remember about Simon’s exploits relevant to our struggles in the year of the pandemic was his obedience to God and his acts of charity. More importantly, that juncture in history liberated Simon Vela from his quest to find the buried image. Do we care what happened to him after that? Many devotees do not even know who he was and what role he played to get this devotion going.

In between the Agtas and Simon Vela, two other individuals were also liberated from Mary’s purposes for them. Father Miguel Covarrubias’s circuitous ordeal from Salamanca, Spain to Manila, and eventually landed in Nueva Caceres after being healed from his illness. The other was the unnamed person who carved the original image of Ina. (To be continued…)

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