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Dr. William Peterson

Folk Catholicism forms part of Filipino Church life

Doctor William Peterson’s research revolves around community-based performance in the Philippines. In 2016, he published the book “Places for Happiness, Community, Self and Performance in the Philippines.”  It brings together more than a decade of research on community-based performance in the Philippines, focusing on theatre, dance and ritual activities that are created and presented outside the context of traditional venues. Most of these performances take place on the streets, particularly during religious occasions such as the Holy Week.

Can you tell us more about yourself and your field of study?

My first degree was in International Politics from Georgetown, a Jesuit university. That education included the theology classes that I took as an undergraduate, in which they had options for non-Catholics.

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One of the classes was called the “Problem of God,” and it was taught by Father Paul Cioffi, SJ. We read philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, and Martin Heidegger, as well as fictional works by authors such as Franz Kafka and Albert Camus. We approached God as a problem to be examined critically, and how the concept of God appears to be deeply embedded in the human condition.

I was not raised as a Catholic, although I came from a churchy family. I was raised Lutheran and part of my family were descendants of Free Church Swedes — a particular kind of Evangelical Christianity unique to Scandinavia — a faith tradition that they took with them when they immigrated to the US in the late 19th Century.

My academic journey began as a student of international politics and I was deeply committed to international life. But in the end, my route to that life was not as straightforward as had I imagined. After graduation, in my twenties I found myself drawn to the theater, writing some bad plays and then deciding to obtain further training.

This led to pursuing post-graduate degrees in theater, including a research Ph.D. My training was largely as a theater historian, with a focus on undertaking archival work. But for my Ph.D. project, I wanted to step out of the archives and traditional theater history frameworks. I looked at American West Coast performance art, and in the process relied heavily on oral histories, something for which I was completely untrained.

My scholarly work thus began with ethnographic and fieldwork studies. My pathway into Asian studies came about when I got a job in Singapore. In fact, I didn't have any formal training in Asian studies.

I was hired — God knows why — in 1992 by the National University of Singapore along with an Australian theater director, who had run the Western Australian Academy for the Performing Arts. So in my mind, they hired the big guy, an important guy, and they hired me, the Ph.D. guy.

I then had the privilege of teaching the first intake of theater studies students pursuing a university degree in Singapore. It was an exciting and challenging time. The curriculum was modeled after Western courses, with elements drawn from the performance studies course at New York University. It was not engaged with Asia.

I sort of educated myself by traveling around and experiencing Southeast Asian performance forms in situ, particularly traditional forms, some of which I had been introduced to previously, but never seen in their home cultural context. So my pathway into this field was a very indirect one.

This book, more than anything else I've done, reflects deep ethnography — years of fieldwork, going back to many of the same places. It's really quite an old-fashioned way of working. I was not productive in terms of cranking out the articles.

And so, yeah, that's what it all led to.

Catholics reenact the Passion and death of Jesus Christ as part of Holy Week observances on a street in Manila on April 15, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

Could you tell us about the massive festivals that Filipinos perform during Holy Week?

In the first half of the book, I write about "Senakulo," which are related to passion plays. Individuals and groups stage Senakulo throughout the Philippines during “Holy Week,” the week between Palm Sunday and Easter.

They use an epic narrative of the Passion of Christ, a collection of verses in the local Tagalog language. This text came together sometime in the early 19th century with the help of a Catholic priest called Father Mariano Pilapil. Shortly thereafter, this narrative came to be called the Pasyóng (Passion) Pilapil.

It's not surprising that its dramatic presentation runs for many nights in some parts of the Philippines. In many ways it’s the history of salvation, thus creating an opening to literally go back to the Garden of Eden. I will use the word Senakulo rather than "Passion Play" because to most people a Passion Play specifically denotes the Passion of Christ. Senakulo, because of its potential breadth, is not quite the same.

One Senakulo, which is a huge lumbering multi-night event staged in the town of Boac on the island of Marinduque, includes the beheading of Longinus. Now, where's Longinus in the Bible? He's some Roman soldier, right? He is the guy who is believed to have speared Christ in the side.

According to this apocryphal tale, Longinus, who was blind in one eye, speared Christ and the blood from the wound hit his eye and cured his blindness. From this belief in the Filipino folk tradition, a whole story is then created around Longinus.

He becomes the first Roman convert to Christianity, and he proselytizes. In some dramatic presentations, Longinus runs around after he's miraculously cured of blindness. But in the Boac staging with its voice-over soundtrack and stiff choreography, he looks quite deranged as he runs around the vast outdoor arena trying to convert Roman soldiers to Christianity. But he's meant to be expressing his gratitude and his love for Christ. He tells everybody he encounters of his miracle, and of course, since he is a Roman soldier, such exuberant proselytizing has serious consequences for him.

In the Boac version, where I've done an extended investigation over many years, the story starts in the Garden of Eden. The multiple-day show should naturally end with the crucifixion of Christ on Good Friday. But in dramatic terms, there’s a need to have a story for the evening show the next day, Holy Saturday. And in Boac, the final multiple-night drama ends not so much with Christ, but with Longinus.

Again, in this version, it turns out that Claudia, Herod’s wife, has a bit of a thing for Longinus! Who knew? Though not in the Bible, the writers of the play added it for dramatic interest.

The play thus leads to this big moment where Longinus is decapitated. The Longinus in Boac wears a helmet covering the entire head, making it slightly larger than life-size. When he is theatrically decapitated, his helmet-head goes rolling down the hill on one side of the stage. The kids push and shove to get to the front to see this gory dramatic moment, fake blood and all.

But the point is that these types of Senakulo are many and varied, and they are owned by the community. By and large, the ones that involve the greatest number of participants and command the largest audiences are expressions of what one could call Folk Catholicism. And, indeed many in the Philippines call it Folk Catholicism.

And Folk Catholicism permits many local iterations. For instance, one that I write about in the book happens in an urban barrio or neighborhood in Mandaluyong City, which is in Metro Manila. Many involved in staging and supporting their Senakulo are of the lower middle class, and some would be considered poor.

They do a multiple-day Senakulo with people who live in the community. They're not trained actors — most are teenage kids — and they generally lip-sync the dramatic text. The text itself was put down in the 1960s by someone unknown — probably a collective effort based on another similar text.

Many of these versions are derived from the Passion Pilapil and they're done in Tagalog.  In folk traditions where community-based ownership is strong, it's important not to change any aspect of the text or the staging, to keep it exactly as it has been in the past.

In the book, I write about other types of Senakulo. For instance, there's one that has a great deal of civic engagement and is done with television stars. It features what I call a sort of activist Christ, as opposed to the long-suffering Christ.

If you're looking at the folk traditions generally, Christ is portrayed as a passive character. He just takes the punishments and he doesn't say much. Whereas in the more activist tradition, the Senakulo is being used to drive political, social, or economic change. In this genre, Christ becomes a figure who takes care of the poor. Everything that He does, connects with the lived experience of people, particularly poorer Filipinos.

Actors playing the role of Jesus (C) and Roman soldiers (background) reenact the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus in a street play as part of Lenten observances during Holy Week in Manila on March 24, 2016, ahead of Easter. Christian believers around the world mark the Holy Week of Easter in celebration of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (Photo: AFP)

How important is performing for a Filipino Catholic as a mode of existence?

Many if not most Catholics in the Philippines are either involved in Holy Week performances of some sort or at least become the audience of such performances. In many cases, people are mobilized in huge numbers for these shows. Even the stations of the Cross are dramatized. On Good Friday you can see people running along with Christ on the streets. In some towns and barrios local men enact the roles of Roman soldiers and centurions.

If you're a Catholic in the largely Catholic Philippines, it often feels that this is what everybody does. Outside of Holy Week, many participate in festivals that feature dance. Culturally specific forms of dance are often linked to celebrations around patron saints or deities that function as patron saints.

For instance, I write about the Ati-Atihan festival, held every January in honor of the Santo Niño in Kalibo, the capital of Aklan province. The 10-day novena associated with the festival culminates in a large procession through town on the third Sunday of January every year. It bears noting that the Santo Niño is not a patron saint. He is Christ, but He's a particular kind of manifestation of Christ — an open, friendly, playful child that people can relate to.

Thus, He serves as a kind of patron saint not just in Kalibo, but throughout the region. Though the festival, which features elaborate street dancing celebrations in the days before the final Sunday, celebrates multiple historical events, at its core it is about the veneration of the Santo Niño, a Christ quite removed from the long-suffering Christ found in many Senakulo.

In the book, I connect the ways in which the distinctively Filipino impulse to create communities and to understand oneself in relation to others plays itself out through acts of performance. Also, how this extends into the religious sphere. The book also sets out a theoretical framework around this.

Using Filipino cultural concepts as well as concepts embedded in the Filipinos’ Tagalog language, I argue that understanding the self in relation to the other operates quite differently than it does in the West. Self and the other approaches a fusion of self and other. There is no self without a shared interiority that then connects with the other, and communities extend from and celebrate this shared sense of self.

The book suggests that active participation in a range of performed acts, particularly around religion and religious performance, contributes to creating the physical, psychological, and spiritual places for happiness to be generated. And at its core, happiness is something that is generated by the individual in relation to others.

Community is then created through active performance. Understanding of self is relational in terms of community. I wanted to look at how that kind of social construction circulates through performance and try to make sense of what's going on inside the bodies of participants in these forms.

Catholics flagellate themselves to mark the holy week of Easter in Navotas, suburban Manila on April 15, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

You referred to dancing as an expression of devotion. Could you please explain?

This was, again, in relation to the Ati-Atihan festival. Several people told me they come back every year for the festival. Early on in my research, as a migrant living far from my family, I thought this was perhaps like longing to be with our family at Christmas time.

But it wasn't the same. People would tell me there were consequences if they failed to participate. They felt it was like a sacred vow. They call it panata, a sacred vow, but it is more than a vow. It compels you to do something — and in the case of the final Sunday in Kalibo, it means dancing through the streets for hours alongside floats or carros topped with an effigy of the Santo Niña.

The events of the final Sunday begin with an early morning mass held outside the Cathedral facing Kalibo’s main square. In my first year there, the officiating monsignor made a very clear connection between dance and panata in his sermon, suggesting that by dancing to excess and not tiring, we were honoring and connecting with the spirit of the Santo Niño

Why dance to the point of exhaustion. Is it just dance? No, participants are dancing as panata. It’s their way of expressing devotion through dancing. How can you dance for eight hours through the streets and not get exhausted? A lot of us can't make any sense of it. There may be some scientific or physiological explanations having to do with crowds and so on. But it’s clear that something is happening inside each of us individually and collectively at that moment.

Through my “adoption” by a local family, I have been back to Ati-Atihan many times. The phrase I use is this: My body compels me to return. That's exactly what it feels like.

For the people who perform through the streets, or performing a role in a Senakulo, or running alongside Christ, it is an attempt to get close to that feeling of passion.

Have you experienced something like that?

I will share an experience. This was on Good Friday. We were watching a stage production in Manila based on the story of activist Christ. Then at some point, Christ is chased off the stage and through the streets of the neighborhood by the Roman soldiers. A bunch of us ran along with the centurions, and we were all running in a state that felt quite crazed.

I don't know why I did that. The streets were dark, and it really was dangerous. I could have tripped and been trampled, it was hot, and I couldn't see where I was going, yet somehow I felt as though I was floating with the rest of the group.

Later I wrote, “We are compelled to be near Christ if we can keep up with the mob. Not because we hope the actor playing Christ will actually be hurt by whips and blows, but because we somehow have the need to be a part of something beyond ourselves.” This is what I wrote. Probably, it is not very scholarly, but I was trying to get inside the experience.

There is joy in this participation, even when commemorating something as terrifying and disturbing as the suffering of Christ. And it is because of the active participation of the entire community in these events that one feels connected to everyone else present and also to forces beyond our control.

A Catholic youth crawls to do penance as part of a religious ritual in observance of Holy Week in San Fernando, north of Manila April 9, 2009. Hundreds of flagellants paraded outside the 220-year-old San Fernando Cathedral to atone for their sins at the start of Easter celebrations. (Photo: AFP)

How is your research impacting your own understanding of world Catholicism?

At the start of the interview, I mentioned Father Cioffi and “the problem of God.” At Georgetown, I had these amazing classes. As someone who was not raised Catholic, my encounter with Catholicism was initially through my Jesuit professors, products of a very progressive intellectual tradition. That education gave me a strong socially activist consciousness and a sense of social justice.

When I got to the Philippines, I met and hung out with a number of Jesuits through a residency at Ateneo de Manila University. And I quickly came to realize how Catholicism circulated differently within other regions. I experienced the flexibility of beliefs and saw how they created opportunities for individual expression and participation in ways that define the individual in relation to others.

For instance, I mentioned the dramatization of the Longinus story, which is quite theatrical. Though in many ways it’s kind of silly to chop off his head, everybody cheers on cue at that moment. Are they cheering because he's the first martyr or because it’s exciting theatrically, or both? Sometimes, I wonder what the Church authorities in their private moments think about these and some of the other wacky things … because some of them are quite wacky.

But ultimately, these practices are beyond the control of the Church hierarchy in the Philippines. That's why the monsignor, whom I mentioned earlier, suggests that when we dance for eight hours with the Santo Niño, we're doing this as panata. He is just acknowledging how it is experienced by the faithful both in Kalibo and in other parts of the Philippines.

Communities of faith are continually being created around these types of traditions that have come up from the ground over hundreds of years and they have tremendous flexibility built into them. That's why I continue to be interested in Catholicism in the Philippines.

That's also why my body compels me, to use that phrase again, to return as soon as I can.

* This is an edited version of a podcast interview that appeared on the webpage of the Initiative for the Study of Asian Catholics (ISAC). The initiative, hosted by the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, is a global network of social scientists who develop new research projects to analyze live realities and the social contribution of Asian Catholics. It aims to deepen and promote academic research on Catholic life in contemporary Asia.


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