501 Years of Christianity: A Lenten Reflection, Part 2



Western democracies look at Filipino Catholicism as imbued with idolatry and fanaticism. Such observation is anchored primarily on Filipinos’ veneration of saints that can be viewed as over the top. Apologetics of the Filipino brand of Catholicism explains that theirs is just as legitimate but culturally Filipino. Centuries of Spanish colonial rule did not “purify” the local’s practice of the faith.


On the contrary, inadequate missionary resources denied formal catechisms to prospective converts which allowed locals to foster their veneration of anitos and superstitious beliefs while substituting with the “miraculous” images the Spanish clergy brought and introduced. Overtime, these practices were normalized and legitimized as they evolved into accepted traditions.


For a devout Catholic, this is probably something difficult to understand especially if it perceives it as “cheapening” such practice. But, nothing is further from the truth with the way we practice Catholicism then and now. For years we were told to obey, obey, and obey. Questioning our faith or traditions then (and even now) was akin to heresy and for the most part, were even anathematized worthy of excommunication.


Now that we have the maturity in our Catholic belief, it would be instructive to look at veneration of saints to gain an understanding as to why we’re doing certain things in a particular way. Veneration of saints include use of religious images and performing arts (music, dances) in the practice of the devotion.


To personalize or localize the concept based on my familiarity, I will use devotion to my hometown patron saint in Tinambac, Camarines Sur, San Pascual Baylon, as an example to make my point. The devotional concept is really applicable to any saint like Our Lady of Peñafrancia (Patroness of Bicolandia) or Santo Entierro (Dead Christ, Hinulid) and the point would still apply.


In the first part of these two parts essay, I’ve explained that conversion from paganism (or other religion) requires a transition for a prospect who is considering conversion to Christianity (Catholicism). Particularly during the Lenten season, it requires one to unlock the mystery of Jesus’ life, crucifixion, and Resurrection also known as the Paschal Mystery.


Venerating saints turn a religious person to a devotee. As a devotee, one can be a voyador or other roles played during the devotion. From a secular perspective, going from a religious to a devotee seems like an easy exercise. You just do it. For a voyador, the men transitions from being a devotee to undergoing a “rite of passage.” For that matter, a religious person also goes through a rite of passage to become a devotee. Going from point A (religious) to point B (devotee) is also a rite of passage. Such a rite can be short or long depending on the level of understanding of the individual.


During the feast of San Pascual Baylon, several activities (religious and social) are normally planned. For example, daily novenas for nine consecutive days leading to the feast day. From my experience back then, many of the prayer leaders were women. Following the novena booklet, devotees were able to join the novenas and privately make their intentions or petitions for such novenas. The prevailing wisdom was that for a devotee’s wish to be granted, he/she must complete nine days of prayer.


During the novena, the “Gozos” (Joys) of San Pascual are recited or sung. For a time, the novenas and Gozos were in Latin until they were translated into Bicol. Listening to them was idiomatic - like Greek to me. Still, we recited/sung them with fervor.


The sakay (fluvial procession) that was held the day before the fiesta (bisperas) involved men of all ages.  It started with a short land procession before going to the gareta launching. The procession then sails through the Lupi River and out to San Miguel Bay. It then turns around and proceeds to the western beach (baybayon) of the Poblacion, disembarks and goes on to complete the land procession on the major thoroughfares of the town. The “ukay-ukay” market that the town allowed on La Purisima and San Vicente Streets had caused tension between the church and the local government for blocking the route.


Some of the voyador who lifted the andas were visibly inebriated and were chanting in loud voices, “Viva San Pascual Baylon!” “Viva!” with all the fervor their hearts can muster. There was chaos, laughter, haggling over voyador t-shirts and bandanas, and some pushing, jostling. They were mild compared to the Peñafrancia processions in Naga. When the procession arrived at the church proper, the church bells went nuts. Some of the voyadores stayed outside after having sat the andas on its proper place near the altar while the others stayed in the back. The church pews would be mostly full by the time si Ama (San Pascual) arrives. The voyadores have done their job, so they just fade away in the background.


I’m trying to understand the rites of passage involved from a religious, to a devotee, then a voyador. A rite of passage from point A to point B involves three distinct phases. From a pagan to a Catholic requires transformation by separating from the familiar old “pagan” self at Point A. The part alone involves a deliberate decision to shed your old beliefs. If you were a hardcore pagan before, that separation could be difficult.


Then, the transition in between the two points, before arriving at the final destination (point B). This trip involves straddling between the two points while testing the waters, if you will, learning, and hopefully maturing in faith or devotion. If the “instruction manual” was not available, then we wing it, hoping it gets fixed along the way.


This transition is one of the critical aspects of such a rite. The person in the process of conversion (from paganism to Christianity) goes through a state called liminality. The concept of liminality involves ambiguity and disorientation. The person is in limbo. Thus, Catechism at this point is truly crucial. The change creates a tension or unease created by the physical liminal space because one has to make such a decision of “all in” or “all out,” from birth to death through the sacraments.


Without proper guidance at this point will allow the person in limbo to follow the path of least resistance (old ways) by his or her inability to truly rationalize the intent and reason for the journey (they said I’m a pagan and would need conversion to Catholicism for my salvation).


Critical thinking would have given rise to questions and sought answers to “Am I really a bad person being a pagan?” “My Bathala before was okay with it, why not now?” “I was only worried about the 10 Commandments before now I’ll be subject to more sinful categories – do I want to subject myself to that and other forbidden things or practices?” “How about my harem (like Humabon) and killer instincts with my personal bolo (binasbad)?” (To be continued)