Updated: January 25, 2017 10:07 AM GMT
Hundreds of thousands of people join the procession of the image of the Black Nazarene during the second week of January as a show of their devotion to the suffering Jesus. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
At the start of every new year, the Philippines hold festive celebrations that many say manifest the faith of a people who were introduced to Christianity some five centuries ago.
Conquered by the cross and the sword by Spanish colonizers, Filipinos developed creative ways to celebrate their "religiosity."
Every Jan. 9, millions of devotees brave heat and crowds to join a procession of the image of a charred Jesus carrying his cross around the streets of the capital Manila. This year, the activity lasted more than 20 hours with some 1.5 million people in attendance.
A week later, hundreds of thousands celebrated another major festival, the feast of the Child Jesus in the central Philippine city of Cebu. A 38-cm tall image of the Child Jesus, which was brought to the island by Portuguese explorer Ferdinan Magellan in 1521, is paraded around the city.
The images of the Black Nazarene and the Santo Nino de Cebu are the most popular objects of devotion in the country. Devotion to these images has been described by many as an amazing display of piety by a huge crowd, a phenomenon unparalleled around the world.
Also to honor the infant Jesus, an equally colorful festival, the ati-atihan, is celebrated in the island province of Panay, also in the central Philippines, every third week of the month. Dances, music, and an array of colorful costumes highlight the celebration. It has become a tourist attraction that brings in thousands of foreign nationals to the country every year.
Devotees believe that these images are miraculous and devotion to the suffering Jesus and the young Christ can heal illnesses, solve financial problems, mend relationships, among others.
A 2015 Global Attitudes survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in the United States notes that the Philippines ranks 10th out of 40 countries when it comes to "religiosity." The study observed that those in the top ten are poor countries.
Is poverty linked with the Filipino people's deep faith in God? Is the promise of eternal life in heaven and fear of the fires of hell fanning the people's religious fervor? Is it not a form of escape from life's difficulties? Is there not a thin line between religiosity and fanaticism?
Devotees risk physical comfort and walk into a huge crowd under the scorching heat of the sun but they never complain. For them what is more important is to experience the suffering of Jesus who died on the cross to ransom the many.
Filipinos have been doing these "sacrifices" for years as a fulfillment of vows in exchange for positive answers to their supplications. For some, the hardship is a form of adoration and thanksgiving for blessings received. And for those who need to atone for their sins, walking barefoot for 20 hours behind the image of the Black Nazarene is a form of contrition.
Christianity is Spain's main contribution to the Philippines. The people's faith and religiosity are worthy of praise. The virtue of piety that has been deeply imbibed through the years is something that can be looked up to in a world where people search for profound meanings amidst a feeling of emptiness.
Yet there seems to be a huge gap between the Filipino people's faith and their response to the challenges of Christianity. Despite the Filipino people's "religiosity," there is a deafening silence, for instance, over the spate of killings of suspected drug addicts in recent months.
Our Christian faith teaches us to love God and our fellowmen. This has been in various church pronouncements, including the "The Church in the Modern World," a remarkable document of Vatican II that speaks of the dignity of the human person.
The Philippines is facing a serious human rights crisis with thousands of suspected drug users and dealers being killed by vigilante groups. To concretize the people's "religiosity," Filipinos have to go back to the basics of their faith and break the deafening silence. Is being apathetic to the situation not a sin of omission?
People in this predominantly Christian country still have to travel far to be able to translate their faith into a collective outcry against the Fifth Commandment — "Thou shall not kill."
Translating faith into action is not only a challenge to Filipinos, but a duty if they want to imitate the examples of Jesus Christ who died so that others may live.
Mary Aileen Bacalso is secretary-general of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances. For her commitment to human rights, the government of Argentina awarded her the Emilio Mignone International Human Rights Prize in 2013.
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