“Communicating hope and trust in our time.”

- Pope Francis

A critical look at the Filipino Holy Week rituals

Station of the Cross in Ando Island. (Este News)

By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD

ALONGSIDE THE LITURGICAL celebrations that the Church observes during the Holy Week are practices which, in the Philippines, have long been linked with it. Among them are the siete palabras, the way of the cross, procession of images, salubong, pabasa, cenaculo, and penitencia. For most Catholics, they not only add color to the week-long celebrations, but are, in fact, so associated with the Holy Week that it could not be conceived without them. It is not seldom that devotees–if only for these folk rituals—would spend the Holy Week in Sta. Cruz (Marinduque), Palo (Leyte), Grotto (Novaliches), or in some remote town in Bicol or Pangasinan, rather than in their own parishes. Some, for example, may decline to attend the Good Friday liturgy, but they will certainly make an effort to witness penitentes reenact the crucifixion on that day. Indeed, it happens that these activities attract more people than the liturgical celebrations themselves. But since these practices belong to the extra-liturgical spiritual life of the Church, the question is often raised: how do you look at them a critical point of view?

            For the nonce, it may be well to focus on the pabasa, cenaculo,and penitencia, and, to start with, give a short description of these practices. Usually held at home, the pabasa is the singing of the life of Jesus in poetic form, called pasyon. Accompanied by a musical instrument, with the book placed between the two lighted candles, singers chant verses, oftentimes in alternation, before a crucifix. It is not uncommon for the host to serve drinks and finger foods during apabasa. The cenaculo is the dramatization of the passion story, which normally begins with the scene of the agony in the garden, and ends with the crucifixion. It may take the form of simple passion play or a grand one similar to that of Oberammergau in Bavaria, where practically the whole village is involved in holding it once every ten years. Unlike the way of the cross which is aimed at meditating on the journey to Calvary, the penitencia seeks to dramatize the physical sufferings of Jesus bodily, either by physical flagellation, the carrying of a heavy cross, being crucified on it, or their combination. All of them are, objectively viewed,forms of participation in the suffering of Jesus: oral (pabasa), dramatic(cenaculo) and bodily (penitencia).

Expressions of Affective Faith

            It is instructive that whereas in the siete palabras, procession,salubong and the way of the cross, the priest ordinarily accompanies the participants, especially in the provinces, he is conspicuously absent inpabasa, cenaculo and penitencia. Of importance, however, is that these three rituals are basically meant for the edification of lay people. And they are held without having to be joined with the liturgical celebrations going on in the church. The priest has no role in them. They belong to the popular tradition. But they are originally aimed at participation in the celebrations of the mysteries of redemption. If these observations have anything to tell us, it is that these rituals are expressions of the people’s affective faith, which scarcely finds place in the official worship in the Church. In effect, it may be said that these popular practices are expressions of the lay people’s affective dimension of faith and at the same time are catered to it. They enhance religious affections and feelings. In the chanting of the pasyon, it sometimes happens that singers, swept by their emotion as they sing the poetic lines, shed tears; in the cenaculo, the participants become emotionally involved as they dramatize the events surrounding Jesus’ death; and in the penitencia, they are able to empathize with him in his pain. On the other hand, Roman liturgy is sober and reticent, and such emotion experience has scarcely any place for expression in it.

At the same time, however, they also externalize the people’s understanding of the faith. Of course, the lay people did not compose thepasyon; priests did. Most likely too, they did not, at the beginning, write the script of the cenaculo; but they make the oral and dramatic expressions, and obviously, having been written for them, these influence their ways of thinking and acting. For this reason, it is not surprising, indeed, that in most cases, their knowledge of who Jesus is and his salvific work shows a familiarity more with the pasyon and the drama than with the gospels or the official Christology and soteriology of the Church. Moreover, today, the script of the cenaculo is being written by laymen and, although priests are consulted, the over-all outcome mirrors the understanding of lay people. But this is especially true ofpenitencia. Though its roots may be traced to the practice of doing penance during Lent, it expresses the lay people’s faith in what participation in the suffering of Jesus must consist of. The rituals, in the other words, are a vehicle which expresses the faith experiences of the participants, but at the same time serving to call that faith to mind, and to catechize their audience in that faith.

Reason for Attractiveness

That these rituals (particularly the cenaculo and the penitencia) attract more people than the liturgical celebrations has at least four significations. First, this indicates their success, at least in catering to the affective dimension of their faith, and the understanding of that faith. In other words, they are able to speak to the needs of the lay people. Unhampered by liturgical discipline, they undergo changes and additions as they develop and flourish in response to those needs. For this reason, they are meaningful to them. The second implication is simply the reverse of the first. These rituals may also be interpreted as an expression of their disaffection from the official Church liturgy. For lay people, it is difficult to appropriate the meaning of the prayers and the action of the official liturgy. Hence, they feel the need for a ritual in order to plug in to the reticent liturgical celebration. A case in point is the holding of hands during singing of the Lord’s Prayer. Although it is against liturgical norms to do so, people in Manila make that gesture because, as someone said, it feels good. More should be said of this, but the point is, there is wisdom in the proposition that liturgy should not be foreign to the affective dimension of the people’s faith.

Moreover, the lay people have been estranged from the official liturgy because, before the Second Vatican Council, they had a little chance–save for cantoras–to take an active part in the liturgy. They were simply spectators, who could not understand the meaning of the words and gesture in the liturgy. Third, in these folk rituals, the lay people are, on the contrary, the subject of the expressions of faith experiences, not merely the recipients or onlookers of the celebrations. And the medium of expression is the language they speak and are at home with. On the other hand, that of the liturgy before, which was Latin, was opaque to their understanding. Hence, they could never comprehend nor feel for themselves the meaning of the celebrations. And fourth, on account of all this, the rituals provide them identity.

Environment of Poverty

The aspect of disenfranchisement brings the discussion to the social location which these religious practices presuppose: an environment of poverty. In general, those who take part in pabasa, who are involved in the cenaculo, and who engage in bodily flagellation do not came from the middle class or above it. They belong to the lower classes–those often alienated from the official liturgy. Even today, they are, in many areas, still disenfranchised, because they are not given opportunities to take an active part and express their faith in parish celebrations to a degree which these rituals allow. (Eucharistic celebrations in which members of charismatic communities are able to express themselves emotionally are an exception rather than the rule.)  Quite apart from the gulf created between the language of the liturgy and that of the poor people, the common values which these practices represent are the pain and the suffering which Jesus endured until death, and people who are poor easily understand and identify themselves with these values. Hence, solidarity in values also accounts for the popularity of these rituals in an environment of poverty. The crucifixion for them is God’s empathy from which they can derive strength and inspiration. Clearly then, these rituals speak something of the part of society or the environment in which they thrive.

Encounter between Faith and Culture

            Their practitioners to some extend cut off from the official Church, and coming from the grass roots, these rituals–it is the whole understandable–reflect an understanding which is the outcome of the encounter between the Christian faith, which they received with much limitations, and the culture in which they were brought up. They presuppose an environment removed from the centers of religion and politics. Before the coming of the Spanish missionaries, our forefathers believed in animism. Here, it was taught that the forces of nature were controlled by spirits who, by magical rituals, could be rendered beneficent or harmful. These were performed by the diwatahan,tambalan or baylana. If Holy Week folk rituals have anything to tell us, it is the animism has not been completely erased from the Filipino psyche. If one makes a survey on those who join in the cenaculo, for example, he will discover that the motive for participation is not simply to share the suffering of Christ, if at all; some likely answers are: fulfillment of a promise, thanksgiving for a favor granted, or reparation for sins.

In a study made on the penitentes of Palo, Leyte, it emerged that fear of punishment was among the motives for submitting oneself topenitencia. The fear of punishment for doing something wrong the year round motivates a person to placate an angry God. By experiencing pain, one assures himself of forgiveness, escape from punishment, and peace of mind. Nonetheless, this is actually an animist theology, though one cannot blame the devotees .They probably have never been thought correct theology, or have correctly understood it, in the first place. On the other hand, the environment of poverty prevents them from having access to opportunities to learning orthodoxy. Hence, the theology of these rituals does not perfectly cohere with the official teaching of the Church. On the contrary, it represents the result of the people’s appropriation of the gospel message vis-à-vis their pre-Hispanic culture and their situation of poverty.

Which brings us to other shadows of these rituals. Alienated from the centers of Catholic authority and life, they are in danger, among others, of being engaged in for utilitarian purposes.  That one participates in self flagellation to obtain God’s forgiveness values the ritual for what the subject can obtain from it. This borders on superstitions, which nurtures the belief that as long as one engages in the ritual, he will be safe, for example, from calamities. This is true of other expressions of popular piety which are celebrated in connection with liturgy. For instance, although a procession is designed as a public witness to the faith, this is not how lay people take it. In many cases, they do not participate in it for that end. That one takes part in it so his illness will be cured, or so his son will reform his life–motives like these are very common. It fact during fiestas in rural areas, many residents will complain if the conduct of the procession excludes their houses from its ambit, convinced as they are that this will also bar them from receiving the graces that are obtained through the intercession of their patron saint.

Subjectivism and Lack of Ecclesial Sense

Related to this is the risk that these rituals are anchored on subjectivism. As already noted, one reason for the popularity of a Holy Week ritual is that it caters to the people’s affective needs. Because it is in touch with their feelings, it makes them satisfied. But there is a danger in thinking that what satisfies is good. That is subjectivism. In official liturgy, of course, this is not supposed to happen, because liturgical signs have their own meaning. That is why the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments, for example, forbids the raising of hands during the Lord’s Prayer because this gesture symbolizes communion.  At any rate, lay people continue the practice because they feel good doing it. But it is precisely the role of liturgy to educate us in such a way we are able to express the meaning of liturgical gestures as our own, and so enter into the mystery of God and our own as a community. This frees liturgy from the danger of subjectivism. On other hand, since lay people engage in Holy Week folk rituals because they make them feel good and satisfy their affective needs, they do not lead to a real participation in the saving mystery.

In addition, these rituals hardly promote a sense of belonging to the Church. Because they focus on answering the effective needs of the participants, they, in general, are individualistic in orientation. If one were to ask the motivations of Black Nazarene devotees in Quiapo for joining the January procession or for wiping their handkerchiefs on the image, the responses would hardly differ from the ones that would be given for joining the cenaculo or the penitencia: personal favors, either material or spiritual. There is scarcely any sense of being community or of belonging to one. (Which reminds us the pre-Vatican II eucharistic celebrations where each member of the congregation acted as if he or she were not related to the other worshippers in the church.)They lack social direction. Understandably, the theory of salvation or soteriology they embody is likewise individualistic: it is the individual who is saved from material and spiritual evils. Hardly ever clear is the concept of salvation of the community, still less the teaching that we are saved through the community. Consequently, the idea of building up the kingdom as part of their mission is far removed from them. On the contrary, the understanding is oriented toward the maintenance of the status quo. It is not farfetched to say that these rituals are burdened with the pre-Vatican II theology. And since they tend to develop apart from the hierarchical structure of the Church, it is not surprising that, in some cases, they are celebrated without any harmony with the liturgical time and meaning of the Holy Week. And their lack of ecclesial sense of belonging opens itself to abuse. It does happen that these rituals are held either for the personal advantage of their patrons, or for tourism purposes, or both.

More Important than Liturgy?

As is true of other popular devotions, these Holy Week popular rituals–to many lay people–are regarded as more important than the liturgy itself for reason already noted. As a young priest assigned to the seminary, I used to say Mass in far-flung barangays. For lack of priest, only one Mass was celebrated in each of them once a month. One day, in one barangay, the old ladies asked me a favor after the mass: “Father, since you come here only once a month, may we suggest that instead of coming every first Sunday, you rather say Mass for us every first Friday?” Similar views can be encountered when it comes to the Holy Week rituals. For many, it is more fitting to act as Pilate in the cenaculothan to attend the Holy Thursday liturgy. It is more meaningful to undergo self-flagellation than to participate in the Good Friday liturgy, for, in the penitencia, one really experiences than the pain which Jesus himself experienced. And so on.

The problem, of course, is that this only reinforces the development of wrong values in the sense that these are at variance with those held by the Catholic Church. And precisely because many consider these rituals more important than the liturgy, there lurks the danger that they might think that all that is needed to be in the right before God is to take an active part in these folk practices. They might believe these arethe ways of approaching God. That many ritual enthusiasts do not go to Church on Sunday, that they do not receive the sacraments, that they are more familiar with their practices than with the Bible–these reflect their lack of belonging to the Church and the importance they ascribe to these rituals. That the most important in being Christian is to follow Jesus daily in discipleship within the community, not in the yearly act of self-flagellation–this, it would seem, is still lost to the devotees.

Incomplete View of the Passion

Finally, the primary importance attached by the participants in the cenaculo, pabasa and penitencia to the death of Jesus results in the formation of values which have grave consequences for their faith and life. (Of course, such significance is not limited to the practitioners of these rituals. As may be observed during the Holy Week celebrations all the country over, it is only during Good Friday that people feel obliged to go to church; hence, pews are occupied to the full. But Easter and its Vigil, which are the culmination of the three-day celebrations, does not, except in parishes where small communities are flourishing, command as much crowd.) The value placed on the death of Jesus has serious implications for a theology of salvation, because this overlooks the life and ministry which led his death, and the vindication of him by God through the resurrection. In such a theology, Jesus came only to die. Which, of course, is a gross oversimplification. Seen in this light, suffering almost becomes valuable in itself, or at least part and parcel of being human which nothing can be done about. But then, this would almost associate Christianity with masochism! Suffering, however, is evil, even in Christianity. In systematics, God is always viewed as a pure positivity. In the Bible, Jesus never enjoyed suffering; if he suffered, it was a consequence of the life he led. He was murdered; he never sought pain and suffering. To say therefore that all that is important is to participate in the suffering of Jesus by simply undergoing self-flagellation or by joining the cenaculo is to oversimplify the meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death. Such a theological understanding would encourage the acceptance of injustice, oppression and domination, and could be used to justify them.


But despite these observations, there is no reason to dismiss these rituals as aberrations. On the positive side, what the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II) says of popular piety readily applies to them: “These religious practices are rich in values. They manifest a thirst for God and enable people to be generous and sacrificing in witnessing to their faith. These practices show a deep awareness of the attributes of God: fatherhood, providence, loving and constant presence. They engender attitudes of patience, the sense of the Cross in daily life, detachment, openness to others, devotion’’ (PCP II, Acts and Decrees, 172). In their Third General Conference at Puebla, the Latin American Bishops describe the lights of popular piety, which may be said of any of our Holy Week popular rituals: it “presents such positive aspects as a sense of the sacred and the transcendent; openness of the Word of God; Marian devotion; an aptitude for the prayer; a sense of friendship, charity, and family unity; an ability to suffer and to atone; Christian resignation in irremediable situations; and detachment from the material world” (GCLAB, Puebla, 913).

But then, what is to be done?

Potential for Social Transformation

Despite their weaknesses, they should not be suppressed. Our attitude should be “one of critical respect, encouragement of renewal” (PCP II, 175). For one thing, these Holy Week rituals are engaged in by numerous but poor Catholic all over the Philippines. And being part of the Church, they are subject of the Church’s care. This even gains prominence today since the Church in the Philippines has declared its intention to become a Church of the Poor where, among others, its “members and leaders have special love for poor.” The Church must therefore value their faith expression, however distorted or superficial, found in these rituals. For this reason, we must help the devotees in such a way that these practices can contribute to the maturing of our faith. And, probably, this could be done in two ways. First, we can identify their values and motivations and purify them in the lights of Christian faith. Then we can transform them by imbuing them with Christian values. In the process, we can show how these rituals are connected, for example, with the entire life of the Christian, and with the life of others. The purpose here is primary their coherence with right beliefs and right living (orthodoxy and orthopraxis).

Second, in helping deepen their faith, we can explore the potential of these rituals for social transformation. At present, they are observed yearly, but do not have–it would seem–any visible impact on the communities they are held in. Probably for most, they are simply rituals, religious externals–period.  But it is instructive that during the Spanish period, from the 18th century onward, the Tagalogs found in the passion story a motivation for revolt against oppression. (A Filipino theology of liberation must take into account the theology of the Filipino peasant religious movements.) We are still in the process of liberation, and as the Philippine bishops noted their Pastoral Exhortation on the Philippines Centennial Celebration, “today, our liberty is eroded as much by foreign invaders, as by internal enemies as the poverty of the many and the concentration of wealth among the few, inequality and lack of participation, injustice and exploitation, deficient culture values and mind-set, destruction of the ecosystem and deterioration of peace and order, to mention a few. True freedom demands that we, especially the poor and the disadvantaged, are liberated from this evils (cf. Gal 3:25-28). It requires profound changes in socio-economics and political structures, revolution of the heart (cf. Jas 4:1) and, most important, liberation from sin (2 Chr 7:14 Rom 6 18; 1 Tim 1:5).  It dictates that we ourselves shape our history.”   Of course, we should not utilize these rituals to incite revolt—that is unchristian. But surely we can ask: what values could be appropriated from these rituals which could serve as vehicles, in a very Christian way, and how they could contribute to the process of transforming society, which the PCP II speaks of (cf. PCP II, Decree 97)?  How can “they serve the cause of full human development, justice, peace and the integrity of creation” (PCP II, 175)?* (Note: The author wrote this essay in 1998].

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