Making sense of the Nazarene devotion

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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The devotion to the Nazarene should be seen in the context of utang na loob that involves risking one's life

ANNUAL RITUAL. Up to 8-M Filipinos troop to Quiapo for the traditional feast January 9. File photo

MANILA, Philippines – It was a religious procession in 2012 that triggered a minor stampede and left not only over 500 injured, but also piles of garbage in its trail.

Quiapo’s The Black Nazarene procession held every January 9, attracts devotees from all walks of life because the image of the suffering Christ is supposedly miraculous. Up to eight million Catholics are drawn to the procession each year, few of them discouraged by reported mishaps, injuries and even deaths.

“The devotion to the Nazarene should be seen in the context of utang na loob (debt of gratitude): ‘God gave me some tremendous gift – napagaling ang miyembro ng pamilya ko (a family member was healed) – so what will I offer in return?’ Something difficult like, sasali ako sa prusisyon taun-taon (I will join the procession every year), risking my life,” anthropologist Dr Fernando Nakpil Zialcita said, explaining the phenomenon.

He described the Nazareno devotion as an “awesome” display of gratitude to God for graces bestowed upon devotees and their families. This devotion, consistent with Filipino loyalty, according to Zialcita, is often limited only to the family and to the “angkan” or clan. As such it fails to take into account “social responsibility to a group larger than their family.”

For instance, some who join the annual Nazarene procession, continue to break traffic regulations, throw their garbage in front of other people’s houses, and engage in corrupt practices, Zialcita pointed out.

“A Christian doesn’t just show utang na loob to God and forgets about one’s neighbor,” he added.

Zialcita, who has written extensively about Filipino identity, emphasizes in an essay “the importance of the broader community, a community that transcends ties of kinship and locality” in both nationalism and modern democracy.

Entitled “Toward a Community Broader than the Kin,” Zialcita’s essay says that “both assume the importance of the Anonymous, Faceless Stranger: the person or persons whom one will never know face-to-face but whose welfare must be considered because they are fellow citizens.” (Read more: Nazareno: Does it make the Pinoy a better neighbor?)

Challenge for priests

Broadening Filipinos’ faith in the Black Nazarene is a “problem facing the priests,” Zialcita said.

A number of prelates recognize this need to teach their flock better morals.

During his Mass on the feast of the Black Nazarene at the Quirino Grandstand, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle delivered a homily about Christian living – such as rejecting adultery, greed, and narcissism.

Mga kapatid,” Tagle said, sa piyesta pong ito ng Poong Nazareno, may pakiusap at hamon po ako. Sana po ang Luneta Grandstand at lahat ng daraanan ng prusisyon, walang makita ni isang basura. Patunayan natin na hindi na natin hihilahin si Poong Nazareno at ang kalikasan pababa dahil sa ating kawalang-malasakit.”

(Brothers and sisters, on this feast of the Black Nazarene, I have this request and challenge. I hope that not a single piece of garbage will be left in the Luneta Grandstand area and along the entire procession route. Let this be proof that we intend to stop dragging down the Black Nazarene and the environment due to our lack of concern for others.)

Devotees ignored Tagle’s call, however. This year’s Nazareno procession – the longest ever at 22 hours – produced more garbage than in previous years, said Manila City Hall foreman Socorro Meneses in an interview with GMA News.

Meanwhile, retired Novaliches Bishop Teodoro Bacani called attention to the hundreds of injuries recorded during this year’s Black Nazarene feast. The Philippine National Red Cross pegged the number at 569.

Bacani said “it is already awful when devotees are already hurting each other just to touch Christ’s revered statue,” according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ news service.

“The Church should focus on catechizing the devotees because it’s no longer good when people get hurt,” he said.

Catholic, upper-class ‘biases’

Zialcita, however, said priests should “understand where the Filipino is coming from” before they can purify the Nazarene devotion. “We have to be careful about our theological, our Catholic, our upper-class biases.”

He pointed out, for example, that the position of some clergymen is simply to ban the procession. “Sabi ng isang pari (One priest said), ‘Why do they have to express their faith by competing with each other?’ That means he hasn’t understood what the ceremony is all about.”

He explained that Filipinos, especially males, consider “macho” rituals like helping pull the Nazarene’s carriage precisely as their display of faith.

“On the one hand, they affirm their sense of themselves as men; on the other hand, they affirm their loyalty to Christ,” Zialcita said, adding that the same dynamic exists in Holy Week crucifixion rituals that are prohibited by the Catholic Church.

“It’s that one moment in the year to show, ‘Ah, Katoliko ako; ako’y naniniwala sa Diyos.’ ‘Paano?’ ‘Kasi hinatak ko ang karosa ng Senor,’” he added. (Ah, I’m Catholic; I believe in God. How? Because I pulled the Lord’s carriage.)

The need to touch the Black Nazarene, he added, stems from the Filipino characteristic as “a very concrete people.” “It’s got to be Christ in the image and the robes and the cross. ’Yun ang naiintindihan nila (That is what they understand),” Zialcita said.

Understand the devotees

Quiapo Church parish priest Msgr Clemente Ignacio has, himself, some concerns about rituals surrounding the Black Nazarene.

These include cutting up the statue’s vestments and the rope used during the procession, and then venerating these as relics. Still others include selling Black Nazarene crucifixes and handkerchiefs, and bringing the image’s hands to the sick.

The Catholic Church teaches that holy images or statues should not be worshiped, and instead be accorded “respectful veneration,” according to its catechism.

It also frowns upon superstition. “To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions they demand, is to fall into superstition,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

In a talk about Nazarene rituals at the Loyola School of Theology last year, Ignacio asked: “Are these practices good or bad? Should they be allowed to continue? Some say: this is already bordering on fanaticism and the people should simply stick to the approved liturgies. These are remnants of the animistic faith of the past which the Church has not yet totally ‘Christianized.’”

The priests of Quiapo Church, however, feel humbled seeing the “intensity and sincerity” of devotees towards the Black Nazarene, according to him.

“One of the priests said, ‘Maybe the theological community has not yet fully understood the soul and spirituality of Filipinos. Maybe our theological paradigms are too Western, we easily misjudge the piety of our devotees,’” Ignacio said.

Nevertheless, Ignacio admitted abuses, superstition, and occultism in some forms of the Black Nazarene devotion. He said the task of the Church is “not to destroy popular practices but to understand them and re-focus them so that a more sound faith may develop.”

Right or wrong?

Ignacio said the Church tries to do this by improving its formation programs and catechizing people during overnight vigils, for example, on the eve of the annual Black Nazarene feast.

In an attempt to inculcate social concern among devotees, the Quiapo Church has also raised funds to help house the victims of tropical storm Sendong in the southern Philippines. Devotees have donated P5.6 million for the victims’ housing, said Ignacio.

The priest said a devotion, in the end, is judged best not through external practices. “It is the heart, the interior of the person that will often decide if an expression is right or wrong.” –

For more of Rappler’s coverage of the Feast of Black Nazarene, click on the links below::

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email