Faith in a tropical Gethsemane

The Philippines' rich pageant of religious rites and festivals


When the Spanish arrived in the Philippines in the 16th century, they found a lush tropical garden ripe for replanting. King Philip II had commanded his soldiers, administrators and religious zealots that there were to be no repetitions of the atrocities committed in the name of the cross throughout South and Central America. The garden and its natives were not to be harmed. But the guardian deities, bug-eyed spooks and phantoms that inhabited the spirit groves of this tropical Eden would be expelled and replaced with the placid features of the saints, the writhing body on the cross and the beatific image of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.

The speed at which the new faith took root and the fervor with which it was practiced must have surprised even the Spaniards. Ferdinand Magellan, the navigator who led the Spanish mission to the Philippines, held the country’s first Catholic mass on Cebu Island on April 14, 1521, planting a cross on the spot to mark the conversion of the local ruler, Rajah Humabon, his family and about 800 of his followers. Believing the cross to possess miraculous powers, locals took small chips from it over the centuries until, to avoid it being whittled away altogether, a pavilion was built and the remains of the original incorporated into a new cross.

The passion of the Filipinos for their adopted faith is evident everywhere you go, even in Muslim strongholds like Mindanao. Today, over 90 percent of Filipinos claim to be Christians. Eighty percent or more are Catholics and roughly 6 percent Protestants. The Philippines is distinct for being the only country in Asia with a Christian majority. During the American colonial period (1898-1946), missionaries of Lutheran, Methodist and other persuasions were highly active in the islands.

The Gospels continue to be preached today by the fervent evangelical missions of the Mormon, Baptist and Mennonite churches. Roughly 4 percent of Filipinos belong to the Philippine Independent Church, also known as the Aglipay, an early 20th-century sect that is quite closely affiliated, as the name suggests, with the Anglican and Episcopalian churches. About 3 percent of the population belong to the Protestant Inglesia ni Kristo. The more orthodox Catholic church has a deep influence not only on the lives of ordinary Filipinos and on the spiritual and moral values of the society, but also on its politics. The clergy have given consistent support to social change and the fight to eliminate poverty, and the church played a key role in the downfall of the Marcos regime.

The product of Spanish, American and regional influences, it has often been remarked that the Philippines is still emerging from the experience of “350 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood.” Elements of Tinsel Town have certainly crept into some of the island’s best-known religious festivals. At Castellejos, scene of the much photographed Balaybay Calvary, a rerun of the crucifixion takes place each Good Friday. Penitents, followed by flagellants, lug their wooden crosses to a hilltop for a spectacle that is altogether too realistic for the tastes of some tourists.

With events like this it is almost as if the biblical settings of the Middle East had found their way into the steamy back gardens of Southeast Asia; as if the garden of Gethsemane had been transplanted, and the copyright for scenes from the Gospels bought up and given a new, slightly ersatz, lease of life. As the supplicants and their followers pass by like extras in a low-budget production of “The Ten Commandments” or “Spartacus,” the more cynical — or anxious — observer could be forgiven for feeling that the crucifixion was almost being upstaged.

Holy Week is a time for rich theatricals and re-enactments from the Scriptures. Many performances of passion plays take place throughout the Philippines. The most renowned, perhaps, is the Mariones Festival in Marinduque. A plethora of rituals and ceremonies lead up to the main event, which climaxes on Easter Sunday when a one-eyed Longinus is chased through the streets, and finally beheaded, by men dressed as masked Roman centurions.

A similar fate awaits the main protagonist at the Feast of San Juan Bautista, an event that re-enacts the life and deeds of St. John the Baptist. Spectacle is also well to the fore at Manila’s Feast of the Black Nazarene. A life-size image of Christ is dragged through the streets of Quiapo by a barefoot penitent. The procession culminates with a mass at Quiapo Church. The event is attended by in excess of 100,000 people, many of whom try, in an act of ritual cleansing, to touch the image with a handkerchief or piece of cloth.

There are also celebrations of local provenance like the Feast of Our Lady of Cadelaria, a festival that honors the patron saint of Jaro, a suburb in the city of Jolo, as well as dedicatory festivals such as the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, an event that marks the appearance of the Virgin Mary in France.

Great stock is placed on what are perceived to be miracles and other forms of divine intervention. The small town of Turrumba was assured a place in the archipelago’s long roster of holy sites when an image of Our Lady of Sorrows was found floating in Laguna Lake in 1778. Every year since then a festival has been held in honor of this talismanic figure, believed to possess mysterious healing powers. At the St Domingo Church in Manila, a candlelight procession takes place on the evening of the second Sunday in October to honor Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, whose intercession is credited with being the cause of a number of naval victories over the Dutch in 1646.

If some of the elements of these spectacles require penitents to struggle under the weight of crosses or undergo flagellations and impalings, there are also lighter, more tender depictions of the Christian faith to be found. The Santacruzan, a festival celebrated all over the islands, is one such event. A novena proceeds this pageant in which young village girls are assigned biblical roles and then paraded under floral arches in flower tiaras and ternos, traditional butterfly-sleeved dresses. The Feast of the Epiphany, held on the first Sunday in January, is another touching event, this one marking the end of Christmas. Children receive gifts at this time and star-shaped lanterns are hung in doorways and windows to symbolize the guiding star of the story.

A good example of the manner in which Christianity has been adapted and localized can be found at the improbable Victorias Milling Company, the world’s largest sugar mill. The company’s Saint Joseph the Worker Chapel contains the arresting “Angry Christ Mural,” an extraordinary piece of religious art and psychedelia made from broken soft-drink and beer bottles. The work was executed by the American artist Ade de Bethune. This witty, slightly irreverent portrayal of Christ on the Day of Judgment is circled by saints bearing distinctly Filipino features.

The Philippines is fertile ground for numerous religious sects and revivalist movements that have come, in some cases, to resemble personality cults more than religions. The so-called Iglesia Atawat ng Lahi (“Flag of the Race”), for example, appears to be a neonationalist movement based on the conviction that the executed Filipino martyr and nationalist hero Jose Rizal was the direct reincarnation of Christ, and that he will return one day to save the faithful from poverty and suffering. The cult, which is based in the region of Calamba, claims a staggering 250,000 adherents.

On the same day that a passion play is taking place in the town of Jordan on Guimaras Island, the nearby “pangalap” ritual merges Catholicism with animist beliefs. Crowds of believers crawl on their hands and knees through a claustrophobic half-kilometer of damp caverns, chanting prayers in Latin in the hope of gaining supernatural powers and protection from evil spirits. It’s quite a sight as they emerge from the gloom, and one that is fast becoming a tourist attraction.

An even more spectator-worthy event takes place near the old Franciscan settlement of Lucban in the Sierra Madre. Lucban is the starting point for the northeast ascent of Mount Banahaw. Native people have long considered the area a “mountain of many cathedrals,” and in the observances of an esoteric cult that has existed here for centuries, homage is paid to the mountain in the belief that, according to local legend, Calvary was magically transported to Mount Banahaw. During Holy Week, devotees of the sect gather on the mountain, bathe in its holy springs and make the pilgrimage to the cavernous Kuweba ng Dios Ama, the Cave of God the Father.

If the spiritual side to life in the Philippines sometimes strikes the visitor as belonging more to the Middle Ages than modern times, then Siquijor, a hilly, limestone island in the Visayas, is like a throwback to pre-Christian paganism. Siquijor is an interesting oddity, well worth visiting. To many Filipinos the island is synonymous with sorcery, shamanism, black magic and the excesses of voodoo.

The island is certainly shrouded in its fair share of mystery. Superstition, despite centuries of Christianity, still plays a major role in the beliefs and value systems of its inhabitants. San Antonio is said to be the center of shamanism on the island, and there are still many “mananambals” (good and malevolent witches and warlocks) active on Siquijor. Voodoo potions, incantations and agents, in the form of poisonous spiders and other venomous insects, are still employed by sorcerers in the service of clients seeking vengeance or retribution from an enemy. The whole business is highly complex and something of a closed door to the casual visitor to the island, but sorcerers and herbalists can be seen during Holy Week on the island, when believers and practitioners gather for the “tang-alap” rituals in San Antonio.

The rich pageant of religious festivals, rites and practices found in the Philippines may border at times on the theater of cruelty, but it can never be said that there is any shortage of life or drama in the culture.

In the name of the Father: the assault on indigenous culture in the Cordillera

“Spanish colonials built a Church on a foundation of native religions that worshipped a plethora of gods, goddesses and demigods . . . The Spaniards did not obliterate these earlier religions, but brought in a more powerful God.”

“The Philippines: Land of Broken Promises,” by James B. Goodno

The urban poor jostle to see the procession of the Black Nazarene, to touch a statue of the infant Jesus, or to watch as a handful of the zealous are nailed to the cross as a test of their faith and God’s ability to grant divine favors. But members of minority groups like the Tingguians, Kalingas and Ifugaos make their own devotions, with offerings to a collection of “bulol” (rice-god statues) under the smoky rafters of thatched cottages in the still remote Cordillera mountains.

This northern range, the homeland of unsubmissive tribes, its terrain conducive to popular resistance and guerrilla warfare, was the bane of the sword and cross-bearing 16th-century Spaniards who occupied the islands. The Catholic Church’s first missionaries were its friars, a tireless breed of evangelists who, even as the population of the islands were succumbing to the Catholic doctrine, came, ironically, to symbolize the evils of Spanish colonialism.

Advocates of a feudal land system favoring the new colonial masters and a handful of elite locals who supported them, the friars were also responsible for eradicating much of the indigenous cultures they found blocking their way, including much of the oral culture of the Cordillera that existed in precolonial era: the epics, folk tales and musical verses that the Spanish authorities regarded as “works of the devil.” Periods of resistance and a strong anticlerical streak characterize the Spanish period in the Cordillera. When the Spanish eventually decamped, thousands of ostensibly converted tribals simply reverted to their traditional beliefs.

A second wave of missionaries no less determined than the friars came with the arrival of American colonials. Mining corporations and timber companies in the early 20th century began the exploitation of the Cordillera, a process that was accelerated during the Marcos era, a time of massive corruption when whole hillsides were stripped first for lumber, then for gold and other minerals. Missionaries were able to take advantage of improved roads and commercial bases established in hitherto inaccessible regions of the mountains.

Even today, it seems that the coexistence of wood carvings of likhas (pagan deities) and santos (saints) in homes and souvenir shops on the margins of the animistic highlands and the Christian lowlands is just too much for the godly. The missionaries who infest the Philippines today largely belong to fundamentalist Protestant missions of the “born again” variety. Such organizations are highly contentious as they fix on the meekest and most vulnerable, often teaching a brand of early 19th-century Christianity with a strong emphasis on Genesis. Creation myths are common to most tribes, allowing the Christian telling of events, with a little adjustment, to be superimposed on tribal versions.

Missions supported by the religious right are well funded, their efforts manifest in the Jesus rallies of TV evangelists allotted air time on the national networks, in the distribution of Bibles and other published materials and in the presence of visiting religious celebrities.

During the last days of the Marcos era, the American preacher Jerry Falwell was among those who arrived in the capital on a mission to rally fundamentalists behind the embattled dictator. The event, billed as a national prayer breakfast to which gospel groups from the southern states of America were flown over to perform, did not take place in the slums of Tondo in Manila or against a background of depravation, but in front of an audience of businessmen and their families at the Manila Hilton.