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.