Monday, November 13, 2006

A Brooding Presence

The town of Lianga, like most of old towns in the Philippines, is built on the classic pattern of streets running parallel to the town center where the triangle of the Catholic church, the municipal hall and the town park dominates.

But in the placement of these buildings and structures, the original town planners left no doubt as to which structure was the most significant, the most important and which represented the real power in the life and affairs of the community not only in this life but also in the next.

The present Catholic parish church in Lianga, which follows the traditional cruciform floor plan of many Christian churches all over the world, was built over a previously more modest wooden structure in the 1950's. By local standards, the building is an imposing structure and together with its 100 foot plus tall belltower, it contrasts sharply with some of the other newer churches in the neighboring towns which have opted for a more modernist look. The parish church of San Agustin town some 26 kilometers north of Lianga is similar in form and design and was probably built from the same architectural plans.

That the church, both as a building structure and as a religious institution, dominates life in Lianga is less true now than in the past but it still can cast a large and powerful shadow over the local population if and when it chooses to. Other Christian sects and denominations may have already gained a firm foothold in the town and some have even expanded their membership substantially over the years but the cross of the Vatican still reigns supreme over the religious landscape in the same way that the church bell tower dominates the town skyline.

And since religious dominance translates to social, cultural and political influence, there is no doubt that the Church is still a major force to reckon with even in these times of declining church attendance and the increasing secularization of Filipino society. After all, more than 300 years after the Spaniards introduced it in the Philippines, Catholicism has become so deeply imprinted in the Filipino soul and psyche that even non-Catholics are not immune from its influence.

That Lianga will remain predominantly Catholic in the near future is certain but times are changing and the challenges it has to face are enormous as well as daunting. But when one has the opportunity to visit the parish church in Lianga and go inside the white painted concrete walls with their long vertical windows of colored glass and stand before the high altar underneath the high ceiling, one becomes aware a feeling of comfort and reassurance, a dawning realization that this is a monument not only to a religion but to decades of history and a testament to a people linked by a common heritage and the shared hopes, dreams and prayers for a better, kinder and more comprehensible tomorrow.

If only in that sense, at least, one can gain a modicum of optimism for the future, as bleak as it may appear to be.

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