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Remembering the Histories of the Immaculate Conception

When did the Immaculate Conception become a national holiday?

The question is important because it does not only give the day such a significance; it also imposes the doctrine (from the perspective of the Roman Catholic church) and a dogma on those who do not subscribe to the belief of that Marian mystery and the many – including Catholics – who confuse this day with virgin birth.

With due respect to priests who are the bearers of sacred oracles and theologians who train to know the words of God but are left holding the candlesticks and never the candles, the Eight of December is about this woman of majesty – Mary – who was not burdened with the Original sin from the moment of her conception. Go back to that short prayer: O Maria, Sin Pecado Concebida, Rogad Por Nosotros Que Recurrimos A Vos.

We are all, by virtue of being Catholic, bearer of that sin that mysteriously (and unfairly) awaits us in the womb.

And so, the joke on women who give birth even as their men are shamelessly irresponsible to claiming paternity of the child, and calling that inordinate event as of the Immaculate Conception is not only vulgar but ignorant.

In my heart, though, I must admit the notion of this kind of conception is one of the most complex of the belief systems in a religion. It is terrifying enough to admit to an exception (Mary was human after all) but to wrangle with the debt of an Original Sin is to bring to the table images of a merciful and conflicted god, free will, and Redemption. It seems part of a longer narrative and to remove one element from it is to render an ancient story of a Divine becoming Human gloriously moot.

But the feast of the Immaculate Conception came to us in historical time. It was only under the Pope Pius IX that this belief became an essential dogma in 1854. The journey to said declaration was not a smooth one. The dogma has divided the Church and still does to the present.

The Immaculate Conception is part of our colonizing experience. Accounts are numerous how the major churches then under the Spanish rule mandated grand processions of Marian images. This tradition was revived under the Marcos era with the elite women and effete aristocracy propping up what resurfaced as a celebration of affluence over the devotional. I remember, curious, going there to Intramuros and gawking at the huge Marian images bedecked in the heirloom jewelry of their caretakers. As the “Paso” came out one by one into the patio of the old church, bells rang and the voice of a man, his voice cultivated to carry across shrill curatorial knowledge, announced the specific “Nuestra Señora” and the name of the “Familia” behind the holy splendor. The whole celebration became a display of wealth and outsized adoration.

In contemporary times, the Immaculate Conception was declared as a special non-working holiday all over the Philippines by virtue of Republic Act No. 10966, which was signed in 2017. Do you see the irony here? Here is a sacred space extolling the virtues and singularity of a woman and it has been embraced by this government led by a president noted for his virulent put-downs of women and mighty insults against the Church, its priests and the Pope.

Interestingly enough, the Philippines is not the only country that has made out of a holy day of obligation a public holiday. Portugal and Spain together with other countries like Argentina, Austria, Chile, Colombia, Italy and Malta, have also done the same thing. Is this a case of a powerful religion in tandem with secular politics?

What do theoreticians on inequality and ideologies say about this gesture? Let me propose a theory: with sacred feast days related to Islam having been declared national holidays, it seems politically expedient for a government to consider also the heart and soul of Catholics.

And yet, histories have not always been kind to this day of Inmaculada Concepción.

In 1898, a Franciscan friar’s account of the waning days of the Spanish empire in the Philippines, pictured a once-powerful church helpless before Filipino/Bikolano revolutionaries. The friar is Fr. Marcos Gomez, O.F.M. (Ordu Fratrum Minorum of Order of Friars Minor), and his account is contained in A Friar’s Account of the Philippine Revolution, whose translation/preparation is attributed to Apolinar Pastrana Riol, another Franciscan friar.

In the said account, Fr. Gomez recalls the dismal conditions they were subjected to as prisoners – from that day in November 1898 to the 24th of December, when prisoners, except the friars, were released because of Christmas, there was no mention of any celebration of the Immaculate Conception.

War – the greatest moral evil, according to Voltaire – does not respect a doctrine. Or, were the Japanese aware it was the feast of the Immaculate Conception when they launched the first attack on the Philippines in December 8, 1941? This was the beginning of war in our country, a war that was a result of a colonial, original sin – the tremendously distorted faith that we are always in the heart of America.


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