Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Yesterday, I read in one of the nation's leading newspapers an editorial written by one noted opinion columnist lamenting the fact that Filipinos no longer commemorate the Holy Week with the fervor and devotion they had in the past. He called most of Filipino Catholics nowadays "paper" Catholics who, instead of observing the culmination of the Lenten season with the proper attitudes of penitence and repentance as befitting a Christian nation giving due reverence and proper remembrance to the passion and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, now merely look upon the Holy Week as holidays to be spent in relaxation and enjoyment in the company of family and friends and largely devoid of any religious or spiritual significance.

I can personally sympathize with many of his views on the matter.

When I was a young child growing up in the Lianga of the 1960's, the Holy Week rituals dominated the early summer months of every year. It was true then as it is still largely true now that in this town, being predominantly Catholic, the rhythm and cadence of community life remains, in many ways, heavily influenced by the feast, solemnities and celebrations enshrined in the Christian liturgical calendar. That is simply the way things are, even today, in this part of the world.

Palm Sunday which starts off the whole thing was always a festive affair with the town church suddenly going yellow-green with the coconut leaflets and fronds churchgoers bring in abundance.. This is in commemoration of the palm leaves with which the residents of Jerusalem supposedly greeted Jesus of Nazareth over 2000 years ago upon his triumphant entry into that city.

The leaflets were fashioned into intricate decorative pieces and end up looking like gaily decorated crosses festooned with tassels and trimmings. Others were shaped, trimmed and twisted by artistic hands into snakelike swords, scepter-like wands and all sorts of imaginative designs. When blessed by holy water during the mass, they are believed by local Catholics to become sacred objects capable of protecting their houses from evil spirits and natural calamities. Even today, it is common to see browned and shriveled palm crosses from earlier Palm Sundays pinned to house doors.

The days leading to Easter Sunday served merely to emphasize how the death and crucifixion of Jesus Christ as a central part of the Catholic belief in their salvation and claim to eternal life has become intricately woven into the culture and traditions of the local folk. Thus, as part of the commemoration of Passion of Christ, everyone was supposed to act as if in traditional mourning. Everyone stayed at home. The wearing of brightly colored and festive attire was frowned upon. The playing of loud music, the making of sounds of laughter and merriment, and the eating of meat, fine food and the drinking of alcohol were discouraged.

If my parents were deeply religious, my grandparents, especially from my mother's side, were exceptionally so. Any attempt to circumvent the rules on proper conduct or to escape religious obligations whether in church or at home was swiftly dealt with a sharp rebuke and the threat of eternal damnation. So everyone in the family toed the line or at least did their best to.

Good Friday brings to a height the enforced somber, penitent mood. The morning was spent making the traditional Stations of the Cross, the ritual prayers commemorating the important incidents leading to the death and crucifixion of Jesus while most of the afternoon was spent in church listening to church leaders and the clergy expound on the meaning and relevance of the Seven Last Words (Siete Palabras), the seven phrases Jesus was said to have made on the cross before dying. The seventh phrase, "Father, in to your hands I commend my spirit," is usually carefully timed to be propounded upon at exactly 3PM which by tradition is believed to be the time of Jesus' death.

This part of the Siete Palabras was a favorite of mine when I was a child because the parish always had, at that time, beside the main altar, a representation of Golgotha, the hilly site of the actual crucifixion. It was made of an elaborate wooden framework covered by paper sheets painted brown and made to look like rocks and stony earth. A life-size cross with a life-size figure of Christ nailed to it was set up above the structure. The Christ had movable joints which an unseen human operator could manipulate with strings like a puppet.

As the last words would be dramatically uttered by the appointed speaker or preacher, the Christ would seem to writhe and struggle in pain and agony amidst flashes of lightning and clashes of thunder (simulated with mirrors and percussion instruments) until eventually relaxing in death and peaceful repose. The effects, when done right, made for an often electrifying display and devotees particularly women and children have been known to cry out in fear and wonder at the show of masterful puppetry.

When Easter Sunday finally comes, the town thankfully shakes off the somber and solemn mood to do what Filipinos do best, to celebrate and have fun. Easter Sunday is also referred to as the Pista Ng Pagkabanhaw (Feast of the Ressurection) and fiestas are just what Filipinos love to have. The beaches are the favorite locations for get-together and family parties. Those with the money splurge on lechon or roasted pig and spend the whole day soaking up the sun and the sea.

Nowadays, of course, it has become customary for families to pack up their things and head to the beaches and resorts or go on short vacations elsewhere as early as Holy Wednesday or just as the official holidays start. Apparently, the four day weekend until Easter Sunday is too much to resist. Even in Lianga, the practice of taking time off to visit other places during the Holy Week is becoming more and more popular.

The prohibition on the eating of pork or the drinking of alcohol during the Holy Week itself has also become more and more passé. Most Catholics today consider these prohibitions as optional devotional practices and not mandatory for all believers. Thus, beach parties or family dinners with lechon and alcoholic beverages on Good Friday are becoming quite common today.

One wonders if this seeming attitudinal trend toward the secular is less a rejection of traditional Catholic doctrine than the general feeling among present day Catholics, even in Lianga, that the Holy Week commemoration, just like traditional and unquestioning religious fervor and devotion, is fast losing relevance in face of the stark and harsh realities of the modern world. Are we fast outgrowing the beliefs and practices that used to define as as Catholics and as Christians in the past?

What about declining church attendance during masses and the growing perception especially among young Catholics in Lianga and elsewhere that their religion is no longer a main defining influence in their daily lives?

All of these can be a fertile subject for discussion and debate but one thing is definitely clear. Things have indeed changed and are still changing and many Catholic church leaders and the clergy are not at all pleased with the direction these changes are taking what used to be the mass of the Catholic faithful.

More than their worry of the trend towards secularization in what used to be traditionally Catholic populations like Lianga is the growing concern that such a trend has become irreversible and there is nothing that the Church and its leadership can do to address this problem. Now that is a thought that should be giving a lot of people in the Church a lot of sleepless nights.


  1. Benjie,
    I'm sure you are somewhat correct about the people losing some interest in Church activities, while living in a world that seems to let people down more than it supports them. It's easy to be complacent about Church when you are down on luck trying your best to feed your family as many here in our area are doing. I just hope that things change soon and allow people to become themselves again. I've seen many people do things that not only were unChristian, but also illegal just to bring in a little cash. I just wish that everyone understood that you can not take out your frustrations on others, taking advantage of them for your own economy, like some of the ones I've had dealing with. Even some upstanding citizens have used my lack of knowledge about this area to their advantage, and left my family having to deal with our own budget crunch because of their actions. Let's just hope that people turn back to their Christian upbringing soon.
    Mark and Merejen

  2. Hi Benj,

    Me again. Happy Easter!

    Just dropping by to say hello. The girls (Evelyn Navarro, Liberty Hortelano-Yap, Gwen Labitad-Zarragoza and Margaret Ople-Leyva) are extending their hello to you too! We had a chance to get together when I was in Cebu last November for a very personal trip.

    Anyway, hope all is well.