Philippine isle turns 'Roman' during Holy Week

Re-enactment of Christ's crucifixion is a matter of faith and tradition on Marinduque Island
Philippine isle turns 'Roman' during Holy Week

"Roman soldiers" patrol the streets of the island of Marinduque in the Philippines during the annual festival to mark the observance of the Holy Week. (Photo by Basilio Sepe)

The laid-back island of Marinduque in the Philippines turns into a "Roman garrison" of biblical times during the annual observance of what is supposed to be a solemn religious event.

Masked "Roman soldiers," called "Morions," roam the streets of the island for the retelling of the story of Longinus, a centurion who supposedly pierced the side of the crucified Jesus with a spear and was healed by Jesus' blood. 

For the people of Marinduque, the festival is more than just a display of their creativity in making costumes and masks. The centuries-old observance has become a "religious vow" that has been handed down to them by their ancestors since the arrival of Christianity on their shores.

There are three groups of people who walk the streets of the island during the weeklong religious observance: the "Legions," the "Brotherhood," and the "Mistah," an acronym of a group whose members pledge to always praise the teachings of Jesus.

"We are all united in our faith," said Jose Manay, 25, one of the "soldiers" of the "Brotherhood" in the town of Boac. This year, he wore the helmet and armor he inherited from his grandfather, Jose "Ka Oti" Manay, who died in March. 

The late "Ka Oti" was known on the island as one of the makers of masks and vests for the festival and distributed it to people for free. 

"I cannot count the number of masks and vests he made," said the younger Jose who joined the "Brotherhood" to follow his father's and grandfather's footsteps.

He said he started wearing a "Morion" helmet and armor when he was 5-years-old. "They started me young," he said, adding that it was only when he got older that he understood the significance of what he was doing.

"We all sacrifice, pray, and participate to atone for our sins, for good luck, and to thank the Lord for his blessings," said the young man.

Ronaldo Layag, 38, played the role of Jesus in this year's celebrations. He has been "Jesus Christ" in the annual Lenten play, dubbed the senakulo, for the past four years.

"You have to be physically fit to take a role," said Layag, adding that preparations take months. He admitted that he gets nervous when Holy Week nears that is why he readies himself as early as January.

"I do this hoping that God will grant me a healthy life and future, and to spare Marinduque from calamities," said Ronaldo. 

Ronaldo said he will be playing the role for seven years until a new "Jesus" comes. Until then, he will literally carry the burden of the cross as part of his annual sacrifice.

Wearing a Morion costume — a Roman centurion's helmet, cape, breast plate, leggings and weapons — and walking around town in the heat is no easy feat. 

The costumes weigh up to 20 kilograms, and a "soldier" must learn to walk with the heavy caligae or military boots.

The Moriones festival traces its roots to 1807, when Father Dionisio Santiago, parish priest in Mogpog town, organized a group of players to re-enact the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. 

The staging of the play evolved around Roman centurion Longinus, who it is believed also served as the officer of the guards outside Jesus' tomb and witnessed the resurrection. 

Tradition holds that Longinus was the one who rushed into town to spread the news, which prompted the high priest and scribes to order his execution.

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