Silent protest
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - April 22, 2019 - 12:00am

Until late in the evening of Good Friday, there were people praying before the Stations of the Cross or inside several churches that I visited or passed by in Metro Manila and neighboring areas.

On Black Saturday, driving back to Metro Manila from a day trip in Rizal, I passed by several churches that were full even at past dinnertime. Devotees, including children who would act as angels, were praying and preparing for the Easter salubong rites at dawn, when the Blessed Virgin Mary would meet her son Jesus Christ, just risen from the dead.

Considering that there are an estimated 84 million Roman Catholics in our country, the crowds were rather small. But it’s significant that such practices – along with other Filipino Lenten rituals such as the chanting of the pasyon and self-flagellation – have survived, even in Metro Manila.

Among the regions, I think Metro Manila has the largest concentration of Catholic churches and Vatican-certified pilgrimage sites. It makes sense, considering that the National Capital Region is home to more than a tenth of the national population. Metro Manila residents who opt for “staycation” during Lent will not run out of churches to explore in the NCR for the Visita Iglesia, from centuries-old structures to the most modern.

I don’t think the rites are observed mainly for tourism during the Holy Week break. There’s undoubtedly religious devotion in engaging in such practices. Listening to the traditional chanting of the Passion of Christ is not a pleasant experience; the chanting sounds like a pack of caterwauling cats. Only devotion can drive a person to pray at each Station of the Cross and join a religious procession through dusty streets in the scorching summer heat. 

Church attendance has been falling, and Catholic clerics, including those in the Philippines, have been bloodied by the sexual and financial scandals rocking the Roman Catholic Church.

But if you consider how the rituals of the faith have survived in this country, it would be foolish to underestimate the influence of Catholicism on Filipinos. While even devout Catholics may not defend clerics who are known to have sinned, and there’s a lively debate on the teachings of the Church on matters such as homosexuality, the role of women, divorce, reproductive health and HIV, I’m sure there are still a lot of Catholics who take offense when their religion is insulted.

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While Lent is not about enjoying the Holy Week break, the devotion that we continue to see should inspire more effort to develop religious sites as tourist destinations.

On Black Saturday I caught the last half hour of the live broadcast of the Stations of the Cross rites in Rome, outside the magnificent Colosseum, with Pope Francis delivering the final prayer. Religious sites are tourist magnets, and this pope in particular has a rock star’s crowd-drawing power. Francis has blunted criticism that the religion is out of touch with modern realities. He has even made some lapsed Catholics rethink their estrangement from the faith.

Aside from holding the Church together, Pope Francis has continued to draw hordes of pilgrims to Rome, with many of them young believers – always a healthy sign for a religion. The travel industry has to be a top revenue source for the Vatican.

Israel has a lot of religious tour packages, designed for members of specific faiths and even for freethinkers. France is promoting religious (mainly Catholic) tourism. The Fatima shrine is one of the top tourist destinations in Portugal. So is the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico.

The Philippines reportedly has the third largest Roman Catholic population after Brazil and Mexico. Several Philippine baroque churches are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But our religious sites, visitor facilities and rituals can use a significant upgrade if we want more tourists.

Religious tourism not only can create economic opportunities for local communities, ease poverty and increase Church resources; it can also help spread the teachings of the faith.

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More than boosting tourism, of course, the Catholic Church can remain a formidable force for making our country a better place. But in the age of religious tolerance and political correctness, now complicated by the sex scandals, the Church and its flock seem to have lost the passion for defending and propagating the faith.

Among all the religions and sects in this country, the Roman Catholic faith is the only one that has been specifically targeted by President Duterte for constant public ridicule.

OK, maybe this is because the Catholic bishops and priests are the only ones among the religious leaders who have spoken out about human rights abuses perpetrated under the Duterte administration. So Duterte is just dishing it back.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has been conspicuously avoiding an open confrontation with Duterte. But there is also power in silence.

Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle did state in his Easter message that “our world appears dark” when “hunger, unemployment, addiction, indignities, abuse, hate speech, false accusations, killing, corruption, human trafficking run wild and seem to reign.” But he did not attribute these plagues on any particular person or group.

The Church has also been conducting its own voter education campaign without mentioning any specific candidate. Instead the faithful are advised to pick candidates who are honest, dedicated, who aren’t seeking office mainly to enrich themselves but to genuinely serve the people. The right of suffrage must be exercised wisely if democracy is to remain strong, the faithful are told.

At the start of the official campaign period, I was told that certain civil society groups would be launching a movement for a silent protest vote, if possible in time for the elections next month, with Church-affiliated groups among the core organizers. I’m not sure if the messages now being delivered during church masses are part of this movement.

Catholic Church officials have said the faith is always strengthened by turning the other cheek in the face of abuse and oppression. Who knows, with the elections coming so close to Holy Week, the country might yet see a Catholic vote.

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