The pagan in us

For decades, I have been completely flummoxed by the millions of male Filipinos who make the feast of the Black Nazarene (9 January) an unsettlingly idolatrous spectacle. From the fringes, feminine presence is starting to invade masculine territory.  In the past couple of years, women cradling  sick infants have risked life and limb just to get close to the image of the Nazarene and beg for miraculous cures.

Branching off the centuries-old tradition   are the Nazarene replicas, in various sizes, that are paraded down side streets by a vigorous tide of male adolescents. They clamber up miniature andas, wipe the replicas with white towels, which they toss to the crowd. They are parodies of their elders who surge along the main procession route that circuitously leads to the Quiapo church. I think the replicas have to remain outside, in the plaza.

Every year, the non-believers among us never fail to fire broadsides at the fanatics: they describe the masses as duped, ignorant, superstitious and hypocritical because for all that show of religious fervor, individual venalities persist. They also accuse the Manila city government of abetting fanaticism in exchange for votes, and the Catholic Church in the Philippines, in particular the Archdiocese of Manila, of perpetuating colonial mentality. Some historians seize the opportunity to point out that the whole construct of religious processions is nothing more than a tissue of obscurantist beliefs; it is Spain’s only legacy after more than 300 years of colonization. (Three hundred years in a convent, my mother often says.)

I must confess that I used to have a rather cavalier attitude towards the Black Nazarene procession and other such festivals that take place all over our country.  For instance, the adoration of the Santo Niño, as expressed in the Ati-atihan and various versions of the Sinulog, has a rather perceptible scent of idolatry and endemic paganism. I learned in school that the religious images in Catholic churches and places of adoration are mere reminders or representations of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints; we are not supposed to adore or venerate the material images because that is against the First Commandment.

However, through the centuries the images seem to have instantiated the divine and saintly beings they merely represent.  The millions of devotees of the Black Nazarene who occupy the main streets of Manila for two days (7 to 9 January) seem to be oblivious of the difference. However, neither the Church in the Philippines nor the Archdiocese of Manila seems to be alarmed.  On the other hand, why should they be? Even the fearsome Holy Inquisition was reportedly very lenient with the natives of these islands; pagans were impervious to doctrinal refinements, so why bother hunting for heretics?

The day after the feast of the Black Nazarene, it dawned on me that Spain’s most precious legacy is not the Catholic religion; she may have bequeathed us many other things, but it certainly was not Catholicism because our “pagan” beliefs are still very much part of our daily lives. When Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and his men arrived in Cebu in 1571, they searched high and low for the Santo Niño that Magellan left behind 50 years before. They finally found it, enthroned in a kind of altar standing on  a mongkok and with  crocodile teeth; it had become a water deity and would be rowed out to sea whenever drought threatened.

We have been transforming alien beliefs all along; the Aztecs did that as well. After the destruction of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), Hernan Cortez and his conquistadores ordered the Aztecs to use the stones of their ruined temples to build the cathedral of Mexico City, and other churches. Unknown to the Spaniards, the Aztecs selected the stones with bas-reliefs and carvings of their own gods so they could continue to adore them while attending Catholic rituals.

Marcelo del Pilar was fiercely anti-friar but I am sure he knew that the “Soberanía monacal” was a veneer that our pre-Hispanic beliefs were so deeply embedded so these were destined to survive. In the shadow of the Patronato Real, Catholicism and idolatry mingled like sand and sea in the pagans that we are.