Holy Week in Bantayan: Fast or feast?

Bon Cabiles

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Is exemption from abstinence of meat still valid in Bantayan?

GOOD FRIDAY PROCESSION. The Santo Enterrio procession in Bantayan draws thousands of devotees into the island. Photo by Jon Cabiles

CEBU, Philippines – While traditions are useful in keeping the sanctity of religious celebrations, there are few open to misinterpretation and which may ease the intrusion of modern, and sometimes uncalled for, activities.

An example would be Bantayan Island. For several decades, local and international tourists flock to the island at the northern tip of Cebu for what is often mistaken as the island’s fiesta (feast day) during the Holy Week. The possible cause is perhaps the peculiar manner that the Bantayanons (people of Bantayan) have traditionally celebrated Holy Week.

For Catholics, Holy Week is a commemoration of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. In the Philippines, among the practices generally observed during Lent are fasting and abstinence from meat products, especially on Good Friday.

Holy Week is considered as a period of reflection and meditation. Most, if not all, establishments in the Philippines cease operations beginning Maundy Thursday until Black Saturday. There are those who would head to “Holy Week” destinations where remnants of traditional celebrations are still observed.

A peculiar tradition

During Holy Week, the municipality of Bantayan is popular for its Santo Entierro (Holy Burial) procession where the Stations of the Cross are portrayed in life size figures mounted on carozzas (carriages).

Some of these images are believed to have been brought by Spanish priests in the late 1800s. The relatively recent figures and images have been commissioned by the affluent families of Bantayan. Every year, these images are displayed during the Good Friday procession.

SCOURGING AT THE PILLAR. Some of the life-size figures representing the Stations of the Cross are commissioned by families from Bantayan. Photo by Joanna Oppus-Lanozo

In keeping with tradition, people in Bantayan have an unusual way of celebrating Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Unlike the rest of Cebu (and perhaps the rest of the world), consumption of meat during Holy Week is allowed in Bantayan.

According to reports, this was a special dispensation contained in a Papal Indult in the 1840’s that exempt the Bantayanons from abstinence of meat on Holy Week. The document containing the indult is displayed at Saints Peter and Paul Parish Museum.

PAPAL INDULT. The document containing the Papal Indult is displayed at the Parish museum. Taking photos of the document however, is prohibited. Photo by Jon Cabiles

How this indult came to be remains unclear among Bantayanons. One version states that since Bantayan is a fishing island, most of the residents during pre-Spanish and Spanish time were fishermen, and food source mainly came from the sea.

To ensure that the fishermen subscribe to Holy Week practices (i.e., did not work), the exemption was declared by Church officials in Spain; thus, allowing the people to eat meat.

The other version narrates how fishermen refuse to go out to sea and fish during the Holy Week, fearing the wrath of God. Without products from the sea, only meat was available to people. This apparently led to the granting of the papal indult to the Bantayanons.

The fiesta feel

Although there may be different versions of how and why the exemption was granted, there is a common objective. It was meant to ensure that the Bantayanons long ago were able to observe Holy Week practices.

Yet somewhere along the way, this unique way of celebrating Holy Week in Bantayan may have invited a different mood than the traditional mood most are familiar with. Time may have eroded its historical and religious value leaving it open to (mis)interpretation.

A granddaughter of a local resident, “Jaja,” who spends almost every Holy Week in Bantayan narrates, “Growing up, I remember going from one relative’s house to another on Holy Thursday and Good Friday to share meals. Pwede mukaon og lechon (We can eat lechon) … I am not sure why we celebrate it this way. It does have a fiesta (feast day) feeling.”

She remarks though that in recent years, the Church has been very keen in stressing that it is not a feast day in Bantayan. Instead, the practices are in observance of the Holy Week.

Lent, not entertainment

Bantayan though, has been notorious in the past for its festivities during Holy Week. In 2009, suspended Cebu Gov Gwendolyn Garcia filed a case against a resort owner and the event organizer for hosting a “bikini” night on Black Saturday.

The charges were filed for violation of the Women’s Development Code of Cebu province which prohibits the conduct of beauty contests and other activities that will tend to abuse and humiliate women, and treat them as commodity.

From then on, beauty contests and bikini shows have been prohibited in Bantayan. Sports events though are tolerated. In fact, the Sugbu Triathlon was held last March 29 to 30 at a resort in the municipality of Sta Fe. Live bands are still allowed until Holy Thursday.

Jaja, whose family also owns a resort in Bantayan Island remarked, “It has been quieter this year. We also noticed that our guests now at the resort are mostly families, unlike before when it was usually groups of friends.”

Over a hundred years after the papal indult was granted to the Bantayanons, the question is whether meat exemption is still valid in this day and age. With its origin linked to a religious practice, is it still able to imbibe the solemnity of the Holy Week and what it commemorates?

TOURIST DESTINATION. Bantayan island attracts many tourists, but more so on Holy Week for its traditions. Photo by Joanna Oppus-Lanozo

Many are drawn to Bantayan island for its white sand and pristine beaches. During Holy Week, the distinct manner that Semana Santa (Holy Week) is celebrated in the island has increasingly drawn tourists.

Yet while it is a boost to this island’s economy, it has also threatened the traditional practices and sanctity of Semana Santa itself. – Rappler.com

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