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A Century Later, Beauty Pageant Mentality Pervades

All roads will lead to Naga City in September this year for a very important milestone in the history of the devotion – the centennial year of the canonical coronation of the image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia. This year’s Peñafrancia Fiesta is going to be a huge celebration, elegant albeit pompous pageantry, if gauged from past celebrated milestones. Akin to the crowning of the Miss Universe, reenactment of the crowning of the Queen of Bicolandia will draw equally millions from global devotees.

Just in time for this big event, Pope Francis has appointed a Bicolano bishop, the Most Reverend Rex Andrew Clement Alarcon, DD, to take over from retiring Bishop Rolando Tirona as the fifth Archbishop of Caceres. Bishop Alarcon was previously the diocesan bishop of Daet, Camarines Norte – his hometown. As the Metropolitan Archbishop of Caceres, Alarcon will continue to lead the diocese of Daet as apostolic administrator.

The theme for the celebration as announced by Bishop Tirona’s pastoral letter to the faithful is Se Siempre La Reina (Be Always the Queen), a line from Fr. Maximo Joguera’s original Spanish composition Himno a Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia that Jeguera composed for the canonical celebration in 1924. “Ina is Queen because she is Gran madre de Diós” says the Archdiocese’ narrative about the theme.

Along with the theme is a line lifted from the second stanza of the Himno, “Reliquia bendita que el Cielo nos dió” that Goggle translates to “Blessed relic that Heaven gave us” or “Pamanang banal, balog nin Dios” in Bicol. The pastoral letter encouraged devotees to nurture and preserve the devotion for future generations “in its best condition,” adding that “It is a great privilege that this once-in-a-lifetime milestone is celebrated in our lifetime.”

Presumably, a reenactment of the coronation is in the offing, but by whom, we don’t know. The pope is clearly not on the VIP guest list, but the Papal Nuncio will probably lead the clergy in attendance. He will be joined by other Who’s Who VIPs who want to be seen in the ringside. Lost in all this is the last line of the prospectus: “2024 reminds us of our particular mission in celebrating the Fiesta this year: our identification with the mission of her Son to the poor who COMPOSE THE MAJORITY of the members of our local church in Bicol.”

Clearly, the Queenship of Ina, the Patrona del Bicol is more emphasized as related in Estrofa II versus the essence of Estrofa III “Los pobres y tristes te buscan con fe/ Te miran llorando les miras tambien. Al punto sus lagrimas se truscan en bien/ Y a casa gozosos les vemos volver.” (The poor and the burdened seek you with faith. They gaze at you with tears, and you look at them too. Your own tears blend with theirs, and they return home filled with joy).

“The poor and the burdened seek you with faith. They gaze at you with tears, and you look at them too. Your own tears blend with theirs, and they return home filled with joy” is clearly a devotional metaphor but that is practiced literally. In the over a century old devotion to Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia, not a single documented miracle has been alleged by the metropolitan see that would have to be investigated and validated by the Vatican. Instead, it alludes to “the abundant wonders and graces she has poured into her devotees that she is the Queen of Bicol.”

The Bicol Region is one of the Philippines’ best-known tourist destinations popular for its volcanoes, beaches, caverns, coves, and other natural wonders according to the country’s Department of Trade and Industry. Yet, the region ranked as the third poorest region in the Philippines in 2022 behind Mindanao and Eastern Visayas. Viewed differently, the Bicol Region is the poorest in Luzon. The poverty rate in the region is consistently rising at par with the growing population.

In 1970, Camarines Sur led the region as the most populous with nearly 1 million population. Albay, the second most populous province, did not reach the million-mark until 20 years later. Bicol is primarily agri/aquaculture provinces and a labor force highly dependent on them. Camarines Sur was ripe for exploitation by the communist movement. As a matter of fact, the First Quarter Storm movement in Manila was brought to Tigaon, Camarines Sur by Bicolano activists as an expansion team.

The communist insurgency, overpopulation, and constant visits by typhoons have been consistent factors to date that have affected the regional economy. Inequitable distribution of land and high unemployment are factors that contribute to dissatisfaction. Camarines Sur, the seat of the Archdiocese and the Shrine of Our Lady of Peñafrancia, leads with the highest poverty incidence in the province at nearly 30%. The municipality of Libmanan (where a bishop leads the prelature), has the greatest number of poor households in the province.

The poverty situation in Bicol now is similar, if not worse, during the American colonial era because of the rice crisis in 1919 and 1935. Such backdrop is important to remember to provide context to Fr. Juguera’s masterful composition in 1924 that, incidentally, is also celebrating its centennial (not just the canonical coronation). Fr. Juguera was a Spanish priest who belonged to the Congregation of Mission (CM), a Catholic society of apostolic life of pontifical right for men founded by St. Vincent de Paul.

It is a shame that Fr. Juguera’s name is almost just a footnote to the canonical coronation, but Fr. Juguera was not merely a composer. He was the founder of the national Marian Magazine, MARY’S ARMY. The magazine grew out of Fr. Juguera’s “Rafagas,” a newsletter he published before WWII for the Association of Children of Mary whose mission was to foster extraordinary devotion to the Blessed Mother among the young by introducing them to the de Monfort spirituality and encourage the youth to consecrate themselves to Jesus through Mary.

Fr. Juguera was a Marian soldier in the truest sense of the word who inspired the expansion of the National Marian Magazine. Today, MARY’s ARMY continues unswervingly to spread Marian devotion and provide authentic guidelines of Christian life.

Fr. Juguera’s Himno, therefore, should be decoded from its metaphor.  “The poor and the burdened seek you with faith” should be put in context. The Cimarrones, the Agtas are always mentioned in the history of the devotion as the one who provided the genesis for such an inspiring devotion. They were the one who seek Ina with faith. Yet, the predicament of the Agtas of Isarog is one of bewilderment.

The Bicol version ignores the 3rd Estrofa but makes good environmental points that “Maski an kasalogan sambit an simong ngaran (Even rivers mention your name). Maski an kabukidan, ika an rukyaw (Even farmlands, forests, they too hail you name)!” Poverty, pollution, deforestation and climate change are common Pope Francis addressed themes of our times. Et tu Bishop Alarcon in the name of synodality?


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