Filipinos' extravagant piety mirrors social conditionsReligious traditions are displays of devotion as poor people look for their prayers to be answered
Penitents wear costumes and masks replicating the garb of biblical Roman soldiers during a Holy Week observance in the Philippine province of Marinduque. (Photo by Basilio Sepe)
Sociologists say popular piety is the religion of the masses. It is the way they live. It recognizes ritual practices, which people believe will help them obtain intercession from divine beings.
In the Philippines, Catholics become like grains of corn inside a microwave oven every January. They pop and go wild as they join a religious procession of the image of the Black Nazarene.
It's astonishing how millions of barefooted devotees go near the carriage, climb over the rowdy crowd, touch or kiss the statue, and get out safely. It's like a scene in a zombie movie where the "undead" climb a wall by stepping on each other.
Pain comes afterwards. The faithful lie down on the road. Some pass out due to exhaustion. But they continue to join the procession that usually lasts 20 hours.
The bruises and danger and the loudness and madness have become part of an extravagant display of piety for many Filipino Catholics.
Holy Week observance in the Philippines is another display of popular religiosity. Filipino Catholics even flagellate themselves. In my hometown, the streets are usually filled with flagellants as early as 3 a.m. People cover themselves with rags to hide their identities.
In other places, people even have themselves crucified. The penitents claim that by doing so they glorify the Lord. They hate sorrow and misery because they are used to it. Every day, Filipinos are beaten with whips of poverty and destitution.
Many devotees believe that through their sacrifice their sins will be forgiven and their prayers will be answered.
Most of the prayer petitions include employment, good health, decent housing, education and peace. A way out of poverty is the most common prayer of people who flock to the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help every Wednesday.
Many devotees belong to the poorest sector of society — sweaty, stinky and rugged workers, farmers and low-income professionals.
They exhibit an overexcited and hysterical expression of popular religiosity, maybe as a sign of protest against the system they are in.
Experts say that Filipino Catholics become deeply devoted to the image of the suffering Christ because they can relate to Him. They kneel before the the Blessed Virgin Mary to seek intercession to end their economic ordeal because no one else would listen to them, not even their government.
Filipino Catholics are naturally hopeful. Resilience is one of the virtues the Filipino people exhibit in the face of life-changing disasters.
Filipinos have learned and managed to help themselves because of government inaction. With or without government support, people stand up and pick up the pieces of their lives.
The lives of the Filipino people revolve around suffering and struggle, plus the search for redemption. That is why they continue to seek miracles that would take away their agony.
Religiosity is deeply embedded in the Filipino culture, and it is fueled by the prevailing social inequality in the country.
For many poor Filipinos, faith is what keeps them standing — and the church is their only hope.
Mark Saludes is a freelance journalist who covers social justice issues in the Philippines.
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