Saturday, March 22, 2008

Perils of Philippine Penitents

Since nearly five decades ago, the Catholic Church in the Philippines has declared that confession was the only route for the faithful to get their sins forgiven, but the persistence of penitents year in and year out continues to this day. The spectacle of penitents whipping themselves while being led by several marshals, walking the streets of a particular town in roundabout fashion from 12:00 noon to 3:00 PM, and then converge in the locale's Catholic church, lie flat on their bellies waiting to be blessed by the parish priest.

This practice of self flagellation involves only the men, who cover their faces and slash each others backs with shallow cuts, to let the blood flow and avoid clotting. Then they march in a specific slow cadence while turning their self made whips on themselves over their shoulders. The self flagellants are normally found in northern Philippines in the central plains. Penitents of this type have been with the Holy Week celebrations since the Spanish era, and have remained a fixture despite the Church's disavowal of its practice.

In the last 18 years, the spectacle of penitents took on a higher level when one penitent carried a cross and actually had himself crucified. This created a sensation which brought in tourists and documenters to record the event in the succeeding years. Last year, a penitent died of rabies when his back was slashed with an unhygienic knife. One hundred other penitents with him were treated for rabies. This year, a penitent who has been crucified every year for 14 years made his final appearance and last crucifixion. This annual event has been given a production scale presentation complete with costumes and props. It has become a Holy Week one time presentation for the townsfolk and tourists.

The Church has warned of tetanus infection from the implements used, swelling due to dirt and dust, and rabies. Their sins will not be forgiven and yet they could die and see only the futility of their sacrifice without seeing Heaven. The church however continues to bless them for their sacrifice which encourages their continuation. One wonders what sins would warrant wanting to be crucified for half an hour to receive forgiveness, and why are these sins repeated since the crucifixion goes on every year? Despite the sacrifice, the penitent may not truly be sorry since he never changed his ways, then why continue the blessing? Wouldn't it be easier to confess the crime to a judge and get a sentencing for lethal injection to save society from the sins he might commit that are so dreadful?

The more extreme practice of self-flagellation is said to induce altered states of consciousness for the goal of obtaining religious experiences or visions. Medical research claims this practice releases endorphines which can have such an effect. This is part of the penitents way of expressing devout worship. Over the years, one doubts if it is devoutly Christian or devoutly commercial, since foreign documenters have been known to pay for these spectacles. This is one reason why the number of men being crucified has also increased, together with the costumed cast.

They have been advised that forgiveness will not be merited, and they could die in sin; but perhaps the 3 hour drama that gives them the spotlight for a short period of fame and small fortune, would be sufficient to buy them a piece of Heaven for many months to come. Who knows, they may even get a Hollywood Oscar for Best Documentary Film. As for that religious vision, that can all be satisfied by San Miguel (St. Michael), the country's most popular and globally sold brewed beer. It's a vision of a cold drink after a hard days backbreaking load and piercing experience.



Anonymous said...

This religious fanaticism was quietly encouraged by the Church, but now it has backfired.

The part about being paid to get crucified so that it could be documented is true, although this is being cloaked as donations for the participants healing.

I think their brains need the healing!

Blogtommy said...

I'd be needing a fair amount of those brews BEFORE engaging in such spirituality.....Yikes!!


durano lawayan a.k.a. brad spit said...

Hi Anonymous,

It is a form of religious fanaticism, and historically, the Church used to highlight these penitents as sinners without salvation unless blessed by the priest. At least that's what I remember about the treatment centuries ago.

But the Church has since denied support for these things and have consistently maintained that only confession would get them forgiveness. Anyway, they still get blessed so it may be as confusing as the stand of Bishops on the current Philippine President. :-)--Durano, done!

durano lawayan a.k.a. brad spit said...

Hi Tommy,

I'd want to drink those brews and forget about engaging in that kind of "devout behavior". It looks like masochism to me. I understand why they do it based on their personal vow to God and all that, but the thing is, it has been commercialized.

This Holy Week, there were 19 people crucified! I'd have no qualms if they crucified the politicians though. :-)--Durano, done!