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Church Works To Deepen Marian Devotion In Northern Philippines

Updated: July 20, 2005 05:00 PM GMT
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Church workers carry a 400-year-old Marian statue from village to village in the northern Philippines to help deepen faith as a Marian devotion becomes increasingly commercialized.

On Fridays Church workers load the statue of Our Lady of Manaoag, a little more than a meter tall, onto a van at the shrine in Manaoag, 170 kilometers northwest of Manila. They take it to one of the 26 surrounding villages for an overnight prayer vigil attended by residents.

Countless tales of miracles and healing have been attributed to Mary´s intercession in response to prayers offered to her at the statue, which depicts her dressed in gold-colored robes and holding the Child Jesus.

In early July, when Church workers brought the image to Baritao village, they led parishioners in praying the rosary and a novena to the Blessed Mother. After praying, they asked villagers questions related to their faith and discussed concerns about their day-to-day life.

Before the statue was brought back to the shrine on Saturday noon, villagers prayed out loud for personal favors, and to implore the Blessed Mother´s help so blessings would shower on their village.

Dominican Father Domingo Nacion of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish in Manaoag, a town in Pangasinan province, said the overnight visits of the image are aimed at giving people "a chance to be with Our Lady." They are part of a special evangelization program that began in April.

Close to 900,000 pilgrims troop to the town from early March until the third week of June, the peak pilgrimage time, but visitors arrive year-round, records from the local government´s Committee on Tourism show. People come from across the country and abroad for spiritual retreats, to pray for Mary´s intercession and to thank her for prayers answered and favors granted.

Father Nacion, also the Manaoag church´s chronicler, said the overwhelming devotion often is attributed to the reported miraculous occurrences involving the statue since Dominicans came to the town at the turn of the 17th century. Tales of apparitions of the Blessed Mother atop a hill where the church now stands hastened local people´s conversion to Catholicism, he explained.

In a booklet he published in April, the Dominican priest wrote that without Our Lady of Manaoag, his early confreres could not have succeeded in their mission of evangelizing "the natives of Manaoag and nearby towns."

However, Father Nacion observed, "due to the influx of many devotees from other towns to Manaoag, many of the resident parishioners remained just spectators" to the Marian devotion.

The special evangelization program confirmed Father Nacion´s impression. During the visits to villages, parishioners shared feelings of being "neglected by the Church." They said the parish seems active only during the yearly pilgrimages, which have been hailed by the local government as a "tourist magnet." Father Nacion also heard that some local devotees "simply relied on customs and traditions without understanding what they are doing."

He maintained that when the Church exerts an "authoritarian spirit," laypeople become "timid to explore the depths of their faith." In such a relationship, people "do not develop their talents," Father Nacion added. He said that he hopes the village visits of Our Lady of Manaoag would inspire people to relate their devotion to their daily life.

Pacita de los Reyes´ devotion to Our Lady of Manaoag has prompted her to volunteer for the parish´s ministry to elderly and sick people who come to implore Mary´s aid. The 71-year-old Church worker also decorates the altar at the shrine with some 50 women villagers belonging to the Mother Butler Guild.

In early July she told UCA News she was worried about the pollution brought about by the surge in tourism activities, citing garbage visitors left in the Angalacan River. She said the river is "blessed," since sick people have reportedly been healed after bathing in its waters.

Commercial booths around the shrine also distract praying pilgrims, de los Reyes observed. Some vendors walk around the shrine selling bottled healing oil, while others sell replicas of the famed statue carved from wood or ivory, along with rosaries and pamphlets.

Marcelina Saplan, 68, told UCA News her devotion to Our Lady of Manaoag provides her with a source of livelihood and spiritual strength. Saplan is among townsfolk who have engaged in preparing and bottling coconut oil that is supposed to be able to heal coughs, stomach ache, fever and other ailments. Saplan adorns her oil bottles with wood chips she breaks off from a tree in the shrine compound over which Mary is believed to have appeared.

The elderly oil vendor believes walking daily across a bridge from her village to the shrine is a way of "serving the Blessed Virgin."

Town officials are promoting Manaoag as the "Mecca of the North." They are waiting for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to act on their proposal last August for the town to be proclaimed a "Special Pilgrimage City."


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