Filipino devotion to ‘Black Nazarene’ getting stronger, more challenging amid pandemic

This year, there will be no sea of bodies of devotees of the Black Nazarene who would usually flood Manila's Quiapo district

Every year, on January 9, “feast” of the Black Nazarene in Manila, Julian Vincent Mendoza would fulfill a vow he made almost 20 years ago.

He would drag along his wife and three children, amid a sea of bodies, arms, unshod feet of rich, poor, educated and illiterate devotees of the Black Nazarene in the city’s Quiapo district.

This year, Julian and the throng of people who would usually attend the feast, would not be able to touch the statue or grab the rope used to pull the carriage carrying the image of the Black Nazarene during the traditional procession.

There will be no suffocating heat, no undulating crowd that sways from left, then right, forward and back, like an ocean current that has lost direction — an expression of the devotion to the centuries-old wooden life-size statue of Jesus Christ, which was brought to the Philippines from Mexico by Augustinian friars in 1606.

Church and civil authorities have suspended the celebrations for the second year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The prohibition to visit the Black Nazarene’s shrine this year did not prevent devotees from offering prayers and thanksgiving, and remembering all the blessings the image of the suffering Christ supposedly have given to them.

A police captain, Rodolfo Samoranos, claimed that his prayer for his son who suffered from leukemia has been answered.

“With God’s mercy, he is now healthy. This is not only a miracle. Jesus granted our wish because of our firm relationship with Him,” said the policeman.

A woman prays outside the Catholic church in Manila’s Quiapo district during the “feast” of the Black Nazarene in January 2021 amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Basilio Sepe)

Understanding popular religiosity

In an earlier interview, Monsignor Jose Clemente Ignacio, parish priest of Manila’s Quiapo district, said “there are things that still need to be purified” in the people’s expressions of faith.

“Human as they are, our expressions need to achieve their perfection,” the priest said, citing superstition and even occultism in the devotion of people.

He said Church leaders have to work harder for devotees to understand their faith and put it in the right perspective.

“With proper formation, we hope the devotees could experience more the love of God in their lives and realize their faith,” the priest said.

He, however, warned those who question the seeming fanaticism of the faithful not to make judgments.

“We must first understand why people express their faith the way they do,” adding that “those who could judge better about these acts of religiosity are those who understand fully the heart of the devotee.”

There is no lack in the Filipino people’s faith in miracles despite studies in other countries, especially in the West, that belief in, for instance, healing by touching or even touching a cloth that has touched a sacred image is in a decline.

“In our modern age, a significant portion of our tourism and wellness industry rests on the healing and relaxing and rejuvenating power of touch,” said award-winning film director Jim Libiran.

“If you don’t believe me, you can experience it yourself by going to one of the 75 spa centers near your house,” said the director of the internationally-acclaimed film Tribu (Tribe).

He said that one does not have to be a devout member of any creed, cult or political party, to understand that “we are a tactile tribe.”

He said only those who are mere spectators, “not a participant of the collective action or ritual” see the Black Nazarene as a mere wooden statue.

A father carries his son on his shoulders during the procession of replicas of the “Black Nazarene” ahead of the actual “traslacion.” (Photo by Jire Carreon)

Power and power-relations is based on perception, Libiran said, adding that the Black Nazarene has become, to the eyes of its devotees, “a living embodiment of a collective desire, a loyal and patient friend, a hero, a champion, an idol, a leader, a tribal head, a God.”

“Take away the religious trappings and look at the behavior, motivation, the characteristics of the ritualistic phenomenon, and what do you have? A Michael Jackson concert, or a Manny Pacquiao fight, or parade of the stars,” Libiran said.

Carmelite priest Christian Buenafe described the practice of touching or kissing images as a “cultural behavior” that has become part of the symbols and rituals of most religions.

“Unfortunately, some people go to the extreme that they no longer differentiate worship from veneration,” he said.

Traditions are ways and practices that result from the evolution of history that are re-lived, celebrated, innovated, and continued.

Buenafe said the varied faith-experiences of millions of devotees can be subjected to scholarly scrutiny, but common to all these is the experience of healing, because devotees believe that “Jesus is reachable and approachable.”

Devotees get hurt as they struggle to get a hold of the rope pulling the carriage of the image of the Black Nazarene. (Photo by Angie de Silva) 

Monsignor Ignacio said the Filipino devotees expression of their faith are expressed “in the concrete.” He said it is an Asian trait to believe the presence of the divine in sacred objects and places.

“We all know we don’t worship statues. We worship God, and if these statues would ‘bridge us to God,’ then we want to connect with God using these statues,” he said.

He said he is still trying to understand “the heart and the life” of the devotee, adding that the lack of doctrinal understanding of people’s faith is not their fault but is due to the “lack of opportunities for formation” that should be provided by the Church.

“We have tried to reach out to the ‘mamamasans’ (devotees pulling the ropes), but we are only scratching the surface,” he said.

The priest said that drom the perspective of ordinary parishioners, one can feel the intensity and sincerity of their devotion.

“Maybe, the theological community has not yet fully understood the soul and spirituality of Filipinos,” he said in a lecture he gave at the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University.

“Maybe, our theological paradigms are too western that is why we easily judge about the piety of our devotees,” said the priest, adding that “our theologies might be an elitist theology, which we might need to evaluate.”

This year, however, Julian Vincent Mendoza, will not be able to forge into the sweating multitude during the feast of the Black Nazarene. Instead, he, and the millions of other devotees of the 500-year-old image of the suffering Christ have to pray doubly hard for an end to a pandemic that threatens to change how they practice their faith.

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