Filipinos continue to practice 'bloody' Holy Week rituals

Flagellation, carrying crosses discouraged by church leaders, but are proving a big tourist draw
Filipinos continue to practice 'bloody' Holy Week rituals

Some Filipino Catholics continue to practice "bloody" Holy Week rituals despite discouragement from church leaders. (Photo by Mark Saludes) 

 

"Catch me if you can," children yell at flagellants who observe the Holy Week by inflicting pain on themselves in the streets of Vinzons, a town some 350 kilometers south of Manila.

Romeo Panotes, a 33-year-old penitent, is unperturbed. "We should not make fun of people who are in pain and suffering, even if it is self-inflicted," he whispers, adding that what he is doing is an "act of devotion."

"Through this we can understand how Christ suffered," he says. The man has been doing the annual ritual for the last 15 years.

He prays in front of the altar, asking forgiveness for whatever sin he committed. One of his friends then inflicts 30 cuts on Panotes' back. The wound is about a centimeter long. Not too deep but enough to bleed.

The barefooted Panotes later carries a wooden cross. Behind him are his friends, ready to beat him with their whips. The beating and the movement of the men's feet are choreographed. The pace depends on how fast or slow Panotes walks.

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Flagellation and carrying of the cross are annual events in the Philippines that have attracted tourists from around the world. The real-life "drama" usually culminates in the crucifixion of a penitent.

Jayeel Serrano Cornelio, a sociologist of religion at the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University, says flagellation is a "popular practice of piety" in the Philippines. 

"Flagellation, for many people practicing it, is a commitment to God," says Cornelio. "People believe that if they commit self-punishment, they would receive what they ask for," he adds.

While some flagellants believe that they are "forgiven for their sins after the ritual," others believe that self-punishment shows "oneness to the suffering of Christ."

"In Filipino Catholic faith, God is not a distant God. We have an intimate relationship with God. We look upon him as family. So if he suffers, we choose to join him in that suffering," says the university professor. 

These days, however, the Holy Week ritual has also become a practice "to satisfy spectators." It has become a "performance for entertainment," says Cornelio. "But it doesn't mean that it is not a form of piety," he adds.

The country's church leaders are discouraging self-flagellation and other forms of painful acts of penance.

Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo of Manila says Catholics can demonstrate "oneness" with the Lord through "works of mercy."

"We are encouraged to avoid committing sins and to do good to others," says the prelate. "Instead of buying things that we don't need, we could share our resources to people who are in need," he says.

"To follow Christ and to be one in his sufferings means to live by his teachings," says Bishop Pabillo. He urges Catholics to "perform penitential acts" that would "serve the poor, protect the environment, end social injustices, and promote the sanctity of life."

For Panotes, however, his "sacrifice" is a "tradition" that he wants to pass on to his children. "It is a practice that should not be broken. It shows who we are and the faith that we have," he says.

 

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