Residents carry their belongings as they make their way through a flooded street to shelter after Typhoon Vamco hit Marikina City in suburban Manila on Nov. 12. (Photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP)
St. Stephen Protomartyr Parish in Ligao City, about 500 kilometers south of the Philippine capital Manila, will hold a series of Perdon processions starting on Nov. 21 and every Friday thereafter.
An invitation to parishioners to join the processions was announced at the Nov. 15 Sunday Mass by parish priest Rev. Msgr. Ramon C. Tronqued, who is also the vicar general of Legazpi Diocese.
It is expected that a series of such processions will be held in other parishes. Intended as a plea to God for natural and man-made disasters to cease, the processions come after three consecutive typhoons, Molave, Goni and Vamco, hit the Bicol Peninsula, causing widespread destruction.
These natural disasters — aggravated by uncontrolled quarrying, mudslides and rock falls along the slopes of Mayon Volcano — badly hit some villages and residences, causing the loss of life and property.
The parish announcement brought back vivid images from my childhood in Albay province, where Ligao City is located.
Barefooted men and women in dark clothes with veils covering their faces and reaching down to their elbows, in procession, walking slowly in twos, carrying lit candles and crudely made bamboo torches while singing “Perdon, o Señor mio …” (Pardon, O my Lord …).
As the procession passed in front of our house, my mother woke me up so that I could see the moving scene. To a young child who just jumped out of bed at four in the morning, the sight was spooky and unnerving. But since I was holding onto my mother’s hand as we watched, I stayed put, bewildered more than scared.
I remember the plaintive voices uttering the same Spanish words over and over again in between the mysteries of the holy rosary, which was also being prayed in Spanish. “Perdon, perdon Señor, Perdon, perdon Dios mio.” Was it a song or were they chanting?
Clearly audible was a sob or a moan that would escape lips every now and then. The message was clear: the lamentation was begging the Lord for forgiveness for community sins.
The Perdon procession I witnessed was held a few days after Typhoon Trix in 1952. I witnessed countless dead bodies on carts being taken to the municipal hall. I heard that villages in the islands and coastal villages were submerged in seawater. Stories of bodies being retrieved from coconut and other trees were the talk of the town.
Records show that Trix left more than 900 dead. With Mayon Volcano to the town of Tabaco’s west and the sea to its east, the residents were trapped when the waters rose.
Traditionally, Perdon processions and rituals are held in times of disasters, plagues or massive killings. The ritual usually held at night, odd but engaging, is an overpowering act of seeking forgiveness not for the person or persons doing the act but for the community because the community has “sinned”.
These rituals can still be seen as part of Lenten celebrations in the rural areas of the Philippines, particularly during Holy Week.
In Naga City, also in the Bicol region, Perdon prayers, hymns and other rituals are part of the nine-day novena in honor of Our Lady of Peñafrancia, usually prayed on the fourth or sixth day of the novena. The name refers to the title of the song sung during the entire procession.
While it is true that both in Bicol, the local dialect, and in Spanish, perdon is asking for forgiveness, there is more than just contrition. To merely focus on the sin, limits the power of perdon. There is more. The song begins with the lines “Perdon, O Dios Mio. Dios mio, Perdon. Perdon, Señor Mio. O Perdon y Piedad” (Pardon my God, my Lord pardon, pardon and have pity).
Then follows a litany of personal faults, a confession of sins, then once again a plea for pity and clemency. Then suddenly a notion of change occurs in the prayer/song.
Just when we are about to visualize the supplicant almost prostrate, asking and entreating, he submits his readiness to shed his own blood “… then I can also shed my own blood to pay for my sins.” This disposition is premised with “If you were able to let your blood flow from the cross so that I may be saved …”
Today, being isolated and confined, not being able to do what we used to do, we know that what mattered before, what we worshiped before were all taken away at the snap of a finger.
We liked clothes and fashion, but now we can go nowhere. We loved games, but stadiums were closed. We worshiped musicians, but concerts were prohibited. We adored actors, but theaters were shut down. We loved to eat good food, but restaurants were padlocked. We adored money, but the economy collapsed.
We cannot even use our riches to travel as travel is prohibited. Remember the plagues in Egypt? What we worshiped that is not God was taken away.
We placed going to church and praying at the bottom in the list of our priorities, but now we thirst for blessings and have built small churches in our homes. Instead of asking “why Lord?”, shouldn’t the plea be “Perdon Dios Mio?"
These words we must heed: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)
Edita Tronqued-Burgos is a doctor of education and a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites. Gunmen believed to be soldiers abducted her son Jonas Burgos in Manila in April 2007. He is still missing. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.