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Postscript to the Peñafrancia Fiesta

It is said when the Papal Nuncio to the Philippines, His Excellency, Archbishop Charles John Brown, saw the all-male contingent around the pagoda of the Our Lady of Peñafrancia, he commented how the church is not merely for men. The quote is not accurate but that is the idea circulating now.

There is nothing new about the observation but there is something new about that phenomenon being noted by a high-ranking member of the institutional church. We cannot call it a calling out but we can describe it as a sliver - a slip of ideological sunshine - of hope for a change in how we have been conducting these two major rituals related to the Peñafrancia devotion - the Traslacion and the fluvial procession.

I have written about the singular albeit disturbing traits of the rites around our belief in the Mother of Kabikolan. Many other writers, fearing redundancy and repetition, have raised questions also about the gender-sensitivity attending the devotion - or the lack of it. But many also - and this number includes women - take for granted the fact that indeed women are physically marginalized during the two major rituals. The reasoning about the land procession, the Traslacion, is that it is a chaotic movement and only the men can endure the jostling and the frenzy in said processes. Assuming for the sake of discussion that there are women who are feeling to rough it out, will the devotion allow it?

Given the gentler rhythm of the fluvial procession (the word fluvial itself can be traced to the “fluvius,” the river, and the flow), can it be imagined that, one year, we accommodate only women on the barge? What sin do we commit if we do this? Shall the river overflow and inundate our old city? Shall we be cursed forever?

Critics of any change will point to us the dawn penitential procession where women are now allowed to carry the Virgin. But even that event was sort of disturbing this year. Online, many videos and photos were released showing how men still managed the preparation for the procession. What is it about men that they feel they have the monopoly of strength and strategy?

Why not leave the actions to women? These beings have borne children and have taken care of homes, families and fiestas - attending to the Virgin of Peñafrancia is just one of the errands they could easily accomplish. Next year, Men, leave the Women alone.

This year’s celebration must be the most riotous and chaotic of any observation of the fiesta. While last year, some of us were still wary of the virus, this year seemed to be a declaration that we are, somewhat, already out of the woods. The pandemic has become endemic. Masks were shucked off and we were once more ready to be in the crowd.

One new observation I make is the more extreme behaviors demonstrated by devotees surrounding the Divino Rostro - the Divine Face of Christ as reflected on the veil of Veronica. People did not merely clamber up; the male devotees have developed this gesture of tapping or pounding on the steel orb above which sat the Divino Rostro standard. It is as if the male divinity has encouraged a more masculine - rough - behavior of the devotee.

The social media may have contributed to this new awareness about how extreme the actions of the devotees have become. Depending on how you view faith and fanaticism, one could feel an exhilarating abandon in the men who were seen throwing all cautions to the wind as they pushed and jumped all over the heads of other men. This was not merely spontaneity; this was a rabidly confrontational way of creating a new ritual, a different manner of worship and devotion.

Is the concept of idolatry still recognized by the church? How do we define it? Who defines the parameters with which we crystallize the devotion to the Virgin of Peñafrancia?

Next year, we will be celebrating the centenary of the canonical coronation of the Virgin. The event is the time for us to look at our faith and this fiesta, which is, first, a material expression of what we believe in. For any ritual, boundaries are prime. For any religion, the clear distinction between the sacred and the profane (the mundane) is a prerequisite to clarifying how we behave in said respective domains. The Peñafrancia festivities, described as such, is really a nine-day celebration demarcated by the novena. No other event should be held within those dates.

In previous administrations, there were agreements between the Church and the State to hold non-religious events outside the religious days. It has been shown to be possible that a week or more before the novena, non-religious celebrations are held; a week or more after the nine days, more secular events could be held. This can extend the festival, with the State and Church both benefiting from the respect accorded to the very origin of the feast. And people able to develop a better understanding of their beliefs.


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