Religious fervor

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

It’s always an awesome sight to behold – those millions of devotees jostling to touch or catch a glimpse or get as close as possible to the image of the Black Nazarene.

This year’s traslacion did not disappoint; police placed the crowd at 2.8 million. Maybe it was “revenge devotion” after three years without the annual procession due to the deadly COVID pandemic.

Karl Marx said religion is the opium of the people. Throughout history, mass murders have been committed in the name of faith.

Still, lessons on matters of the spirit can impart the concept of right and wrong, especially in young minds. While I’m not a religious person, I obtained my basic education in a Catholic school, and I still believe in the usefulness of raising children with a spiritual perspective on life.

Religion obviously is a matter of faith, outside the realm of science and empirical data. But there’s so much that is unexplainable in life. At the height of COVID, what did adults tell children when loved ones died of the disease (often within a matter of days)? How do you answer kids’ questions about creation? When did life start? Why are there stars in the sky?

Last week the toddler in our household watched newly hatched chicks with the mother hen. We told her the chicks had just broken out of their eggshells. We asked her playfully if she knew where she came from. She replied: from her papa’s eggs. It sounded hilarious in Tagalog. To this day, humanity still doesn’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg.

Teaching children about spiritual matters provides some explanations about mysteries, and helps dispel fear of the unknown. It gives a child a bit of comfort when a beloved pet dies and the child is told that all dogs go to heaven.

Adults might laugh when they hear a child tell a sibling, “if you don’t share, you’ll go to hell!” But you hope such admonition will be internalized by the children, for a more caring, sharing world.

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If a child refuses to believe stories about guardian angels, religious teaching can at least impart concepts of right and wrong at an early age.

Seeing the entrenched corruption, murderous violence and general mess in our society, it’s tempting to suspect that this basic concept is missing in the way Filipinos are raised.

I’ve heard many foreigners ask why Asia’s bastion of the Roman Catholic faith has the region’s highest homicide rate, and a government notorious for corruption.

What can we Catholics say? The lessons weren’t taught, or something got lost in translation?

Religion classes are part of the regular curriculum in private schools operated by the Catholic religious orders. In basic education, my religion teachers were nuns.

We were taught the concept of reward for doing good, accountability for our actions and the consequences of evil deeds.

Even the basic teaching in the New Testament, to love others as Jesus Christ loves us, helps children grasp the concept of transcendental love. The idea that there is always someone out there who loves you can help get you through the nightmares of childhood. Adults aren’t the only ones who sometimes feel like the world is crashing all around them.

These beliefs can be sustained long past the age when children stop believing in Santa Claus.

We don’t have a Confucian belief system to serve as social anchor and guide for good governance. What we have is religion; in our country, Roman Catholicism is the dominant faith.

In public elementary and high schools, religious instruction is optional, given to students upon the request of their parents. The Constitution specifically allows religious instruction in public schools, but on a voluntary basis.

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People have wondered what drives the kind of religious fervor that makes Filipinos attend a procession like the traslacion.

Participants interviewed at random by journalists often say they carry out the annual panata or vow to attend the procession to obtain the Nazarene’s protection and blessings in life, for themselves and their loved ones.

The closer they can get to the statue that is believed to be miraculous, the better their chances will be of having such prayers answered.

Others – like flagellants and “Kristos” who have themselves nailed to the cross during Holy Week – are penitents who want forgiveness for their sins.

Some folks hope that religious fervor can be channeled into civic responsibility and the commitment to do no harm, whether to other people or to the country, and to obey the law.

A devotee told me, seriously, that there would have been fewer COVID deaths if the traslacion was never postponed during the pandemic and the Black Nazarene was allowed to perform miracles. Many participants in the annual procession pray for succor, for the Black Nazarene to walk with them in their struggle for a better life.

Surely God would have listened, the devotee said, if an enormous crowd of Nazarene believers had gathered as usual in Manila at the height of the pandemic – masked and with distancing observed – and stormed the heavens to stop the spread of COVID.

Unfortunately, since we passed up that opportunity to see the power of prayer, we wouldn’t know if it might have indeed resulted in a miracle.

The devotee I know is a decent, law-abiding, hardworking person. If the majority of Nazarene devotees are like him, perhaps there’s hope for our country.

As for his belief in miracles, such is faith.

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