Nazareno: Does it make the Pinoy a better neighbor?

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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The Quiapo Church rector warns against 'easy judgments' about the Black Nazarene devotion, which attracts 8-M Catholics to a rowdy annual procession

PUZZLING FAITH. Seeing themselves in the suffering and dark-skinned Christ, up to 8-M Filipinos flock to Quiapo for the Black Nazarene procession every January 9. File photo

MANILA, Philippines – It drives devotees to tears while it leaves the others, including Catholics themselves, shaking their heads in bewilderment. For millions, it is faith; for others, fanaticism.

Even the man who supervises Quiapo Church – Msgr Jose Clemente Ignacio – used to struggle with the 400-year-old devotion to the Black Nazarene. It is easy, the rector said, to judge up to 8-M Catholics who troop to Quiapo every January 9, to see or touch the dark-skinned image of the suffering Christ.

Once a skeptic who scoffed at his devotee-mother’s “nonsense” in Quiapo, Ignacio cautioned against a “Western” or “elitist” perspective on the devotion. In a paper redistributed to prepare for the procession on Wednesday, January 9, he said living with devotees, as he does, could change a person’s views about their practices.

How, after all, can one simply dismiss their persistence under the scorching heat, and despite a terror threat? Or the risks they take, like being trampled upon, to get near the image of the Black Nazarene? What about their unwavering faith that somehow, a vow to walk barefoot and pray to the suffering Christ can heal an ailing mother or save a baby girl’s life?

“I don’t know, but after being submerged in the life of the ordinary devotees, the pastors of Quiapo are one in the feeling that they have been humbled in their priesthood the more they get to understand and encounter the faith of the simple people. From where ordinary parishioners stand, one can feel the intensity and sincerity of their devotion,” Ignacio said.

He said this looks “superstitious and even fanatical” to others, especially those schooled in Western theology. “The better way of expressing one’s piety (is) through retreats and recollections,” some would say. But Ignacio warned them against their biases.

“Whether some expressions are delusional or devotional, it is the heart, the interior of the person, that will often decide if an expression is right or wrong,” Ignacio explained.

He recounted the biblical story of a woman who kissed Jesus’ feet and washed them with her tears – a senseless act for a Pharisee but an act of faith for Jesus. He explained: “It is only God who could see through the hearts of people.”

“I hope, before we make easy judgments about devotions, we must first understand why people express their faith the way they do. Those who could judge better about these acts of religiosity are those who understand fully the heart of the devotee,” Ignacio added. (Watch this year’s Nazarene procession below)

‘Purify it’

Ignacio, however, admitted that the Nazarene devotion needs purification.

Some related practices, for example, go against the teachings of the Catholic Church. These include the use of amulets or black candles to bring misfortune upon other people, the use of religious icons for magic and the occult, and other forms of superstition.

Ignacio also cited those who “manipulate the devotion and use it for their own ends,” such as people who claim to predict the future or sell abortion pills to the desperate.

In an interview with Rappler in 2012, anthropologist Dr Fernando Nakpil-Zialcita said the Nazarene devotion is an “awesome” display of gratitude to God – but is often limited to the concerns of one’s family or clan. Zialcita said the challenge is to factor in “social responsibility to a group larger than their family.”

“A Christian doesn’t just show utang na loob (debt of gratitude) to God and forgets about one’s neighbor,” Zialcita explained.

It is interesting to note, for instance, that in 2012, the Nazarene procession left over 500 injured and also piles of garbage in its trail. The call then of Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle – to clean up and show concern for the environment – went unheeded.

This year, according to Ignacio, one way to broaden the Nazarene devotion is to pray for disaster victims. He said another is to pray for the protection of life. (Watch more in the video below.)

The most crucial question, it turns out, is not whether this devotion is simply superstitious. It is this: does it make the Filipino a better neighbor? –

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