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Making Sense of Religious Rituals

Rituals are important aspects of any religion. Catholicism features elaborate rituals that range from making several hand gestures like crossing oneself to genuflecting when passing in front of the Blessed Sacrament to using the incense as a way of purifying the altar before celebrating the Mass.

During Holy Week, many Filipino Catholics take part in various Lenten rituals and practices, like the Pabasa (Intoned Reading of Christ’s Passion), Senakulo, (Staged Re-enactment of Christ’s Passion), Via Crucis, (Way of the Cross), Self-flagellation, Seven Churches Visitation, etc. Some of us perform these rituals to atone for our sins. Others do it because of tradition. I know of a friend who flagellates himself every Good Friday, thinking that repentance is a yearly activity.

Whatever motivates people to participate in religious rituals, it is important to know how these rituals originated, and why they have become a part of the Catholic tradition.

Before the coming of the Spaniards, pagan patterns of beliefs and practices existed among the native Filipinos. Each town had a god of its own called Diuata, who had to be appeased through sacrifices.

The people had priests whom they called Baylanes, who offered sacrifices and were believed to converse with their gods. Greater than Diuata was the god Batula whom the early Filipinos adored because “he was the Lord of all, and he had made men and all peoples.” Batula was believed to have ministers or Anitos whom he sent to the world “to bring about whatever came to pass therein...”

With the advent of Christianity in the Philippines, the Filipinos, instead of replacing the pagan religion with the Catholic religion, unwittingly adapted the early practices of Christianity and suited them to their own external manifestation of religious beliefs. As a result, the early Filipinos substituted the Christian God for Batula or Bathala, the town patron saints for the Anitos, and the priest to take the place of the Baylanes.

This phenomenon is known today as folk Catholicism, where Catholic beliefs and practices are superimposed on the original pattern of pre-Christian beliefs and rituals.

Folk Catholicism is prevalent today in the Philippines as shown in the religious outlook and practices of many Filipinos. During the annual fiesta of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, wild scenes are enacted by the devotees, beyond the control of the organizers. Many of the devotees, who walk barefoot, believe in the Black Nazarene’s healing power and want to touch it. Others struggle to touch the rope attached to the float, believing that it will bring abundant blessings to them.

In some Bicol churches, a person who wants to pray for a particular intention leaves a small candle burning outside the church, while the person goes inside to pray. Others buy medallions, with some Latin words inscribed on them, that are believed to convey specific powers, such as protection from bullets and bladed weapons.

Outside the church medicinal herbs and potions are sold, recalling the close relationship between folk religion and folk medicine. Inside, the devotees are kissing the statues of the saints, wiping them with their handkerchiefs to show respect and ask for favors.

Some priests explain the prevalence of folk Catholicism as “retardation of faith.” What these priests do not realize is that these people do see value in what they do. We cannot expect our people to abruptly abandon their ritualistic practices, change their attitude and embrace a Western type of Catholicism that has likewise a set of different rituals.

Rudolf Otto, in the Idea of the Holy, has pointed out that our experience of God cannot be totally reduced to clear concepts and articulate language. There is an element in our experience of God – perhaps the main element – which is non-rational. This non-rational is still meaningful to us, but we find difficulty in conceptualizing it.”

Perhaps this is the case with many Filipino Catholics who continue to adhere to traditional Catholic rituals. They may not be able to express their belief in articulate language, but it does not mean faith is absent.

A priest friend once said, “While on His meeting with the European people, the God of the Hebrews became, so to speak, a European.” Similarly, I think God should also become a Filipino in the sense that He should give us the grace to be able to continue worshipping Him in our own cultural and traditional ways.

Rituals are good. We can only express what we feel through rituals. However, we should never make the mistake of equating Catholicism with mere adherence to ritualistic practices. Christianity is a way of life. It is not a monthly or a yearly affair. It is not even a Sunday tryst with God. It is a daily commitment to the greatest truth ever told: Love your neighbors.

The Filipino cultural value of utang na loob (debt of gratitude) comes into play through these rituals. By making novenas, walking toward the altar on our knees or kissing the statues of the saints, we feel that we have done something good to God. As a result, we expect God to reciprocate our good deeds by granting our request. Our novenas have the effects of making God and the saints indebted to us. When God does not answer our prayers in the way we want, we make tampo (displeasure). And if ill fortune befalls on us, we conclude that God is probably angry because we made tampo.

Personally, I don’t think something is wrong with this frame of mind. We, Filipinos, are, by nature, friendly. We make tampo to our friends at times. What is more fulfilling is that Filipinos treat God as a friend who will never betray us, even if the Spaniards stamped us with their brand of Catholicism where God was presented as an omnipotent judge to be afraid of. This kind of Filipino-God relationship is what makes us uniquely different from other believers.


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