Postscript on Quiapo: Private Piety, Common Faith

As in the past years, millions of devotees flocked to Quiapo last January 9 to celebrate the annual feast of the Black Nazarene.  Hordes of barefoot pilgrims once more flooded the selected thoroughfares, which, for that day, were cordoned off from traffic for what is considered in the Philippines as the mother of all processions.  Thanks to the local TV networks, what used to be a mere religious procession has now become one giant reality show that lends the plight of the contemporary Filipino a human face in a way even the best soap opera or the most edgy of indie films would never capture.  The TV outfits always have a special eye for anything that draws a huge crowd trusting that wherever people congregate, ratings won’t be far behind.  For the foreign tourists unfamiliar with a religious festivity of this magnitude, the feast of Quiapo was definitely a sight to behold. For the cynics however, it was but a one-of-a-kind enlarged flash mob. For the devotees among us, the scenes from the feast of the Black Nazarene were an unassailable testament of the enduring religiosity of Filipinos.

 

Of these, it is the latter, I suppose, that seriously calls for a closer reflection given Quiapo’s religious character.  I don’t really have anything against popular profession of piety.  After all, mass demonstration of faith is not something endemic to Catholicism alone; various religions like Islam, Judaism and other Christian churches also have their own versions of public display of pious affection.  The Quiapo procession however distinguishes itself from others for its almost Dionysian sense of abandon despite its conservative provenance as a Catholic devotion.  Observers note how the number of devotees that converges in Quiapo continues to swell year after year and with this increase also rises the toll of physical injuries, petty crimes and the heap of garbage left behind by a sea of penitents.  This has been the recurring story of the feast of Quiapo, a story which definitely detracts from what can actually be an inspiring narrative of a people’s testimony of faith.

 

As it is, there is really nothing harmful in the performance of piety in the public space.  What really invites rethinking is the romanticization of a religious outpouring in the name of a piety which has not grown larger than the devotees’ private intentions.  Religion, admittedly, is a personal experience and surely one that incorporates the desires, anxieties, conquests and aspirations that a person brings into the rendition of his religious engagement.  But then religion too is an ethical relation, something that requires transcendence of one’s self for the sake of the other, whether that other is a fellow pilgrim or his country or the very divinity that animates one’s religious devotion. 

 

Last January 9, something truly bothersome was caught by the TV cameras when the statue of the Black Nazarene was almost overcome by a multitude of devotees vying for a spot nearest to the image.  This took place even when the Mass officiated by Cardinal Tagle was still in progress and the procession was yet to commence.  Later on, while in transit, there were also those who literally defied all odds  to find their way up the Black Nazarene’s carriage and render what is thought to be the supreme gesture of homage and sacrifice – a touch, a kiss, a mere wipe with a towel or hankie which would seal the wish for a miracle. People would risk lives and limbs for that moment, throwing all sense of public order and public safety to the wind.  At one point, a group even attempted to remove the barricades at the MacArthur Bridge specifically put in place to reroute the procession and prevent the weight of almost three million pairs of feet from massing over an aging bridge at the brink of collapse. 

 

These incidents magnify what has been a regular fare in our day-to-day exchange.  Increasingly, yet unconsciously, our society is transforming itself into a mere aggregate of individuals, a pseudo-community where the personal is the primary determinant of choices and actions.  We have yet to identify with a self larger than our own and pursue a good that we can collectively aspire for and enjoy.  It is as if society is but a venue for our competing individual wills.  We are lulled by the illusion that we are one because we occupy the same space.  The veneer of unanimity effectively hides the deep-seated fragmentation that marks off one’s motivations from others’. We see each other as co-inhabitants and not yet as co-actors hence our potential as a people for a collective ethical action has yet to concretize itself in terms of an actual personal as well socio-political change.  We mistake our proximity with unity and our parallel interests as common goals and daily the corrosive effect of this state of affairs is palpably present in the crises which weigh on our families, our systems, our institutions even our religions.  The scenes at the Quiapo procession are a painful remainder of what can happen even to something as lofty as religion once overtaken by private piety and individual devotion under the guise of common faith. Apparently, even the divine dispensation is not spared from the cut-throat competition once spoken of by Thomas Hobbes as the state of nature. One wonders what happens to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth who as a servant thought of the other ahead of himself, away from the hysteria and pressure of the crowd.

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Minding Good Friday

The featured preacher on the second day of the retreat was a diminutive fellow, probably in his early to mid 30’s and who, according to his self-introduction, was also an active player in the preaching circuit.  He was also, as he claimed, a radio host and a book author.  In fact, he told his listeners, copies of his latest work were on sale outside the hall and that they, members of the audience, were bidden to buy them, adding in jest, on the pain of death.  He admitted he accepted the invitation to preach in the said retreat aware as he was of the prospect of huge receipts from his book. From start to finish, that would be the constant refrain of his preaching.  Each time he tried to make a point or cracked a joke, he would refer his listeners to his book in case they wanted more.  The audience loved him and was practically at his finger tips for the most part of the session.  They would laugh at the slightest suggestion, shrilled when he sang and reacted instantly to any remark he mouthed.  It was indeed a highly successful marketing pitch, garbed in the tone and language of a spiritual retreat. During the break, the listeners stepped out of the hall edified, “touched” as they described themselves, and went back to the session later clutching a copy of the book bought from the sales preacher.

Later that day, another preacher came in, a healing preacher according to the description found in the programme.  In his homily, the preacher narrated his journey from being an average pastor to becoming a much sought-after healing minister for over a decade now. He had travelled to different places said he and has delivered countless people from various illnesses through his miraculous touch.  He would remind his audience every now and then that it was not he but the Lord who heals. The actual healing session took place after the mass has ended.  It began with the healing preacher giving out basic instructions on what was about to happen: where to fall in line, how to keep oneself disposed, what to expect when one is “slain” by the Spirit.  Towards the end of his introductory remark, the preacher mentioned his “special request.”  He announced that a group of volunteers would walk around the hall with empty baskets in hand and members of the audience were encouraged to manifest their generosity by filling up those baskets with their “love offering”.  Proceeds from those offerings, said the priest, will go to a special project he was undertaking.  The audience was kind enough to understand and to oblige.  When the baskets gained weight, praying began and soon, people started to make a queue to receive the minister’s extended hand.

Both preachers appeared at the same spiritual retreat, on the same day and for the same reason of spreading of the Word.  They certainly did not charge anyone for what they did but that doesn’t mean they didn’t earn a profit out of it. If even the thought of fusion between God and mammon in the former times was considered sacrilegious, the two preachers showed how conveniently it can be done these days.  It is not just a case of money changers and peddlers swarming at the temple gates as reported by the Gospels; what we have here is prayer itself converted into a commodity, something that can yield profit or traded, a good that can tempt anyone to be a vendor, a buyer or a thief.

Karl Marx once called religion the opium of the people.  He was talking about the hallucinating effect of religion and its capacity to alienate people from the real state of affairs.  If he were alive now, he would probably be surprised to find out that even the religion he had in mind then has been displaced by capital.  Capital is the new religion of the people.  It is the Golden Calf mounted at the center of most modern institutions for worship and adoration. One wonders what kind of devotional purpose can explain the relation between the expression “In God We Trust” and the way we look at money represented by the mighty US dollars where that expression is found.

By capital we mean not just physical money; it also includes the acquisitive drive that it inspires, the illusion that more is better as well as the misbelief that everything can be commodified. It is not religion but capital that speaks when one hears a Catholic devotee glorifying his favorite patron saint for a material reward which he has received or has yet to receive. Even acts of piety has assumed some form of a trade, a kind of exchange deal: I’ll give you a prayer, give me my raise. It is the same with the examples cited above: the preacher gives a talk because he can sell his book; the priest heals the sick but only after the baskets are filled with love offerings.

Religion is a huge magnet for money and the people behind religious organizations registered at the Securities and Exchange Commission know this.  They won’t say it is not trading God for money. Another fellow ages ago argued the same way.  Apparently, he only realized the bad deed he made when the subject of the deal hung lifeless on the cross.