Viva Señor Jesus Nazareno!

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - January 11, 2021 - 12:00am

I snaked through the thick crowd of Black Nazarene devotees last Saturday morning as I drove home to Quezon City from Manila.

Some had masks on – from flimsy pieces of clothing to the trademark blue surgical type, while some had none at all. Some wore face shields, mostly on their heads and not actually on their faces as it should be.

Some walked in slippers, others trudged along barefoot as a form of penance and in emulation of Christ’s walk to Golgotha. Some wore yellow and maroon Black

Nazarene shirts. Most perhaps were all hardcore devotees to the life-sized image of the dark-skinned kneeling Jesus.

They say that when you whisper a prayer to the Black Nazarene and when you do it as close to the statue as possible, your prayers will be answered.

There are millions of devotees of what the Spaniards call Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno, and every year, at least a million go out of their homes to join the annual Jan. 9 procession, a reenactment of the image’s 1787 Traslacion or “transfer” to the Minor Basilica in Quiapo from its original shrine inside Intramuros.

The procession, which usually lasts 22 hours, is the largest one in the country, drawing millions of devotees who brave the crowd to touch the image.

This year’s event was largely scaled down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was actually no Traslacion, but an estimated 32,000 devotees still flocked to the Quiapo district to hear mass.

Around 19,000 were in Quiapo by dawn of Saturday, the police said. There was no stopping the crowd, even as only 400 people were allowed inside the Basilica at a time.

Super spreader

As soon as images of the huge crowds of devotees, practicing seemingly ineffective social distancing measures, flooded social media, observers voiced their anger and frustration.

It was no doubt a super spreader event, they said. How could the masses be so stupid? How could they be so ignorant? How could they be so irresponsible?

Experts also noted the risks.

“We’re really going to need a #miracle to stop a super spreader event in Quiapo right now. Please don’t go. Aren’t we supposed to watch out for each other? Putting others at risk is about as un-Christian as it gets. Let’s keep each other safe,” Edsel Salvaña, a member of the government’s Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases technical working group, said on Twitter.


But there was no stopping the devotees. Irresponsible perhaps, but critics are missing the point.

Filipino masses, some of whom live on less than two dollars a day, are in such a desperate situation that their only recourse is to turn to religion or whatever opiate they can find. Never mind the crowd, never mind the risks, never mind COVID-19.

What could be more sad? Our people are finding their own ways out of the madness, unable to think of the consequences of their actions or ignoring the risks just to have a few hours of respite from their difficult situations.

Didn’t they troop to the fake white sand on Manila Bay as well – despite the crowd – if only to feel the manna from the gods?


For others, joining that procession is as essential as surviving. If you don’t have a job and money to make ends meet, or if you worry about where to get food to bring to the family table every day, you’re going to hang on to every little thing you can, to find spiritual solace in the madness. This is why religion is so strong among the marginalized.

Faith is essential for many Filipinos, especially the desperate ones. It is not irresponsibility or stupidity that drives them there. It is sheer desperation.

This, indeed, is the story of us. We cling on to whatever we can when there seems to be nothing else to hold on to and that fervent need is multiplied a hundred times, especially now when we are facing a pandemic that is COVID-19.

Remittance centers

Didn’t you notice the huge crowds, too, in remittance centers which Filipinos brave, to get their cash assistance from the government? Incidentally, the amount of ayuda distributed through these money outlets is shamelessly slashed by P50 to P250 per recipient, depending on the remittance center. That’s really too much to take away from the poor, especially when the remittance company is earning from other means anyway.

Opium of the masses

Religion, as Karl Marx said, is the opium of the people. Bequeathed to us by the Spaniards, religion in this country has, indeed, become opium and a suppressant, especially for the masses who turn to this system of faith in the face of uncertainty and injustice.

Filipinos trooped to Quiapo last Saturday because they felt they needed to.

It’s the closest to heaven they could get and until they actually feel the gods of this country really giving them the help they need, they will keep on praying to their gods for help and salvation; they will keep on finding their own solace; they will keep on braving the maddening crowd; and yes, they will keep on whispering to dark-skinned Jesus – COVID-19 risks and all.



Iris Gonzales’ email address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com

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