Will the Pasyon survive?
Zaphyr Iral, Ronald Mendoza and Alvin Perez (The Philippine Star) - April 15, 2014 - 3:44pm

MANILA, Philippines - Rochelle Enriquez, 17, has been joining the 'Pabasa' for four years but unlike her contemporaries who do so by belting pop tunes, she prefers to chant it the traditional way. 

She said the tradition is important because it allows her to show her devotion to Jesus Christ, who offered His life for sinners.

“Pabasa allows us to feel the spirit of Jesus, who died for our sins. It allows us to understand how He loves us,” Enriquez, a resident of Angat, Bulacan, said in Filipino.

Enriquez said her grandmother convinced her to take part of the tradition in 2010.

Not all young people, however, think like Enriquez. In fact, she herself is unsure whether the long-cherished tradition will survive.

“I cannot say if it will survive. If you do the chanting by heart, the spirit of the Pabasa will survive. If not, it will die,” she said.

At a time when the youth are flattering themselves through selfies and challenging norms through social media, age-old customs that require more than just a short attention span are at risk of fading away. 

In the case of the Pabasa, some experts believe that the tradition will survive but will evolve into something that can be grasped by young people and the masses. 

However, views are divided on whether devotees are ready to hear the fusion of the life of Christ and the songs of contemporary performers like Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga.


The Pabasa ng Pasyon or Pabasa, which started during the Spanish colonial period, involves the chanting of a narrative about Jesus’ death and resurrection.

A Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines News article described Pasyon as “an epic poem in stanzas of five lines of eight syllables.”

Charleston 'Xiao' Chua, assistant professor of history at De La Salle University, noted that the first Pasyon was written by Gaspar Aquino de Belén in 1704.

His work 'Ang Mahal na Pasión ni Jesu Christong Panginoon Natin na Tola (Holy Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Verse)' became a big hit and spawned several versions.

Fr. Mariano Pilapil then created Pasyong Pilapil or Pasyong Henesis, a doctrinal version that is being used by Filipinos today.

Chua said Pilapil’s version is called Pasyong Henesis because it includes a narration of the events in Genesis, the first book of the Bible.

Some scholars believe that the 'Pasyon' also enabled the Filipinos– then colonial subjects of Spain– to relate with the suffering Christ.

“It was not just about commemorating Jesus’ life, but it was there to unite the society,” Chua said.

Citing scholar Reynaldo Ileto, Chua said Christ was likened to the Filipino nation in a sense that it could rise again if it resists colonial rule.

Marathon chanting

The traditional Pabasa lasts for almost a day. Participants gather in the house of the organizer, usually a devotee who had the panata or vow to hold the activity every year.

The pabasa starts with prayers like 'The Lord's Prayer' and 'Hail Mary.' The leader will then talk about the importance of the tradition before the actual singing starts.

Participants stay in front of an altar filled with candles and images of a suffering Jesus, the sorrowful Virgin Mary and saints who witnessed the crucifixion.

Sometimes, the image of the parish patron saint is placed on the altar.  However, some organizers place statues that have nothing to do with Holy Week like that of the Infant Jesus.

Some parishes hold marathon Pabasa, as a form of sacrifice. This would require participants to take turns in chanting the Pasyon, which is normally mellow, slow and monotonous.

Readers continue their chanting even if they reach past midnight. The organizer is responsible for feeding the participants until it is finished.

For chanters, it doesn't matter whether one's voice is angelic or similar to galvanized iron sheets being torn. What is important is to perform an annual ritual that strengthens their faith and their bond.

Neighbors do not seem to mind if the silence of the night is pierced by voices of old people amplified by a sound system. After all, the practice reflects communal unity.

Those who do not have anything good to say about their neighbors' voices usually do nothing to stop it. Perhaps they regard the experience as a Lenten sacrifice.

Pasyon a la Celine Dion

Rosendo Antonio Diokno, leader of the Secular Franciscan Order in Baliwag, Bulacan, said originally, the pasyon was sung using five tunes. 

As the years passed, organizers added tunes like 'Sta. Clarang Pinung-Pino' and 'De Colores.'

At present, some pabasa participants, especially the young ones, are chanting the verses to the tune of popular songs.

In the 90s, a group of chanters used the tune of the Celine Dion hit 'My heart will go on,' shocking devotees who are not used to blending the sacred with the secular.

Upbeat versions eventually surfaced like the one sang to the tune of 'Voltes V' and more recently rap Pasyon. 

Will it survive?

Chua believes that Pabasa would survive because of efforts to innovate it.

“It (present way of chanting) is not the original way of performing the pasyon. The same is true with the way it is being sung. Eventually, readers of pasyon will dwindle but the culture will survive,” he said.

“The tune changes but the meaning is still there.”

Chua said he does not see anything wrong if Pasyon is kept alive using modern technology like the Internet.

Fr. Jose Buenviaje, parish priest of Nuestra Señora dela Paz y Buen Viaje Parish in Quezon City, said Pabasa “has become so deeply rooted in the consciousness of Filipino Catholics.”

He, however, has reservations over efforts to fuse the tradition with modern songs.

The innovations, Buenviaje said, usually came from the masses and young people who are looking for something new.

“They try to come up with something new but sometimes, it’s not good because the essence disappears,” the priest said.

Buenviaje is concerned that those who put emphasis on innovation might lose focus on the message being conveyed by the Pasyon.

“I think it (innovations) will not help. It will become another fad and eventually, you know the cycle of fad, it will surface and eventually die a natural death,” he said.

Buenviaje said educated communities in his parish still prefer the old-fashioned chant which he described as 'melodious' and 'solemn.' He said the traditional way is more conducive in preserving the faith because it is more prayerful and serene.

Gerardo Roxas, former president of the Secular Franciscan Order in Baliwag, is also against the modern way of chanting pasyon, saying pop hits do not jive well with the tradition.

“The tune must be appropriate. The words must be expressed with prayers and reflection,” Roxas, who has been joining pabasas for 22 years, said. 

He also frowned at the use of rap in reading verses about the life of Christ. 

“It is not appropriate. I’m not in favor of it. It doesn’t seem to be sad. Pasyon is supposed to be sad,” the lay preacher said. 

The CBCP has also urged the youth to stick to the traditional pabasa and to avoid turning it into a form of entertainment.

"We should also reflect on the tone and the rhythm," CBCP Episcopal Commission on the Youth Executive Secretary Fr. Conegundo Garganta was quoted by reports as saying.

Roxas admitted though that young people have different interests nowadays.

“To keep it alive, we should teach them and expose them (to the tradition). It can  be hard. Times have changed,” he said. 

Chua agreed, saying the tradition would survive if the elderly educate the youth about its importance.

He noted that the practice remains very much alive in provinces and in some posh subdivisions.

Those who want the pabasa to live on can take comfort from the fact that some view it not just as a tradition but as an expression of gratitude.

“I will continue the tradition, because God gave His life on the cross,” Enriquez said.

“So what if I offer an hour or two for him? I will allot time for Him. In that way, I can show Him that He is important to me, that I love him.” 

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