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I have never paid much attention to religious devotions. I have always believed that aside from parish obligations like going to mass and communion, faith is a deeply personal encounter. In fact, I had also thought that these devotions bordered on some form of fanaticism.

I looked at the recent Black Nazarene procession in the same light as another  devotions identified with  a certain type of “fanatical” Catholics. But I am now reviewing my past judgments after a chance reading of the homily of Cardinal Chito Tagle during the mass he officiated on the eve of the Black Nazarene procession.

In his homily, Cardinal Tagle  said that people should not judge the ‘extreme piety” of the thousands of devotees who participate in the Feast: “For the others who think the devotees are just shoving each other, that is not true...Have you ever experienced having nothing more to hold on to? Once you have experienced that, then the Nazarene is there for you. Go to him. Hold on to him. You will understand why the devotees just want to get near Him. You don’t have anyone to hold on  to, but the Nazarene is there.”

I now think of those people who may think that the Quiapo  procession is only for the masses because they can afford to fly to Lourdes or Fatima to pray for healing.  Then I also think of all those who make the effort to attend special session of priests and others who are supposed to have healing powers.

I now wonder if the chances of God hearing someone’s prayer is much higher if the prayer is said during a procession in Lourdes compared to a procession in Quiapo.

While Cardinal Tagle’s  homily made me asked all those questions, it was the admonition of Msgr. Jose Clemente, former rector of the Minor Basilica of Black Nazarene, that made me realize that I had truly passed judgment on the devotees without any real basis.

Msgr. Clemente said: “It is only God who could see through the hearts of these peoples...I hope, before we make easy judgments about devotions, we must fully understand why people express their faith the way they do. Popular piety involves the whole person, not just the mind. It might make a mystical experience even which we do not understand. We only need to respect them.”

Catholic devotions

The Catholic Church has looked at devotions as “external practices of piety” which are not part of the official liturgy of the mass but are part of its spiritual practices.  Since the European Middle Ages, the most popular devotions have been the Eucharistic Adoration, praying the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross. To this day, these devotions are widely encouraged by the Church. Marian devotions, such as the wearing of the scapular, have also become part of Catholic life.

Philippine devotions and culture

The Philippines is not only overwhelmingly Catholic  but also fervently spiritual. Anthropologists and historians have traced the existence of  fervent spirituality, in Filipino culture,   to the pre-Spanish and pre-Catholic era. The combination of  spirituality in Filipino culture and the predominantly Catholic population have resulted in several Catholic devotions to become an intrinsic part of Filipino culture. Here are a few examples:

Flores de Mayo. This devotion originated as the daily offering of flowers to Mother Mary during the month of May. The culmination was a religious feast that marked the finding of the True Cross by the Queen Helena or Reyna Elena. It has evolved into a May festival and the feast day  is called the Santacruzan and has become partly a beauty pageant.

Simbang Gabi.The original practice was based on the holding of dawn masses so the farmer could go to mass on their way to their farmlands (bukid)  to tend to their crops. It was, therefore, for the convenience of the farmers. After the mass, the barrio community would have breakfast prepared so the farmers could eat before going to work. But it has now evolved into a practice that supposedly entails sacrifice because it requires waking up early and going to church.

Obando. Each year, this town holds a three-day feast attended by people from all over the country. Masses are held, long dancing processions are performed through the streets and there are devotional practices inside the church. The belief is that couples who cannot conceive will somehow be able to conceive if they participate in the three day devotion.

Penafrancia. Our Lady of Penafrancia is a wooden statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary housed at the Penafrancia Basilica in Naga. Every September, novena festivities are held in her honor. During the week long festival there are masses, processions and other devotions. On the last day of the festivities, there is a fluvial procession with the image is carried on a decorated barge. The riverbanks are crowded with devotees and tourists. During this week-long novena feast, there are many stories of miracles.

Black Nazarene. Every January 9, a procession is held in Manila where the statue of the Black Nazarene is paraded around the city. It is said that no other procession attracts as many devotees as the Black Nazarene.

The feasts of the Black Nazarene, Our Lady of Penafrancia and the parish celebrations are all processions. There are some that attract millions of devotees and others have limited participants. The degree of fervor also varies. Processions are expressions of piety. No one can really judge a devotee’s motivation or passion.

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