Saturday, March 27, 2010


What would you do if you recognize a flagellant as someone who has committed a terrible offense against you or a loved one?  A friend was telling me the other day of his amusement while watching a group of flaggelants on Good Friday last year when suddenly a woman broke off from the crowd, rushed toward a hooded penitent, and beat him all over his body with fists and shoes while cursing him to high heavens.  And he submitted meekly to the beating. Our conjecture was that this guy must have done something wrong that could even put him behind bars.

There were no flagellants or penitents carrying crosses in our hometown San Narciso, Zambales (where we took the picture above on Good Friday 2007) when we were growing up, although some people would go to watch these folk religion practitioners two-towns away in Castillejos.  But with the influx of migrants from places where the penitensiya is a Holy Week tradition, we now see a growing number of flagellants in procession from the church and around town before they all go for a cleansing dip in the China sea. 

The penitensiya is believed to have been copied by the pagan and head-hunting indios of yore from the Spanish friars of the conquista.  Fervid converts like today's manongs and manangs of the Roman catholic church took the words and deeds of the cura as their religious credo without question. It's only of recent memory that parishioners were weaned away from rote recitation of prayers, novenas and other oral expressions of faith (like "opo, padre" in all our indigenous dialects) and encouraged to go back to the Scriptures. Good thing about it, folk catholic rites have become part of cultural traditions that are gainfully convertible in the tourism market.

We only have the Jesuits to tell us how penitensiya started to become part of the Pinoy religio-cultural fabric. The Dominicans did not mention this act in their chronicles. If the Recoletos scourged themselves, flagellation could have become a hand-me-down religious practice from Bolinao to Subig, the boundary towns of the old Zambales province.

Fr Pedro Chirino, SJ (1604) tells us how the early converts in Leyte, Bohol and Cavite practiced their new religion with fervor especially during the Holy Week.  For example, this was how it was with the new Christians in the Jesuit missions in Alangalang and Carigara (in old Leyte, we suppose) --

"During Lent and Holy Week they performed their penances with great devotion, shedding their blood with such fervor that it became necessary to restrain them. So strong and ardent was their desire to do penance that those who could not procure woolen shirts would not go in the procession, waiting for those garments already stained with blood, in order that they might bathe these anew with their own. Nor was there less fervor among the children, who sought permission [to take the discipline], even at a very tender age, and became disconsolate indeed if it were denied them. These new Christians practiced another sort of penance during the last two weeks of Lent, which caused great edification. In the early evening they went out, clad in their woolen shirts; their hands extended in the form of a cross, were bound to a piece of wood; and from each hand hung a very heavy stone. In this manner they went about the village, halting finally at the church whence they had set out. There they remained a long time on their knees, offering their penance to God our Lord. The children had practiced this penance before; for during the Shrovetide festival (at which time there are so many disorders among our Christians of long standing) they formed themselves in pairs, and went forth with great devotion, having their hands extended, in the form of a cross, on a piece of wood, with heavy stones hanging at each side. For this purpose one child bound the other, accompanying him until he returned to the door of the church; there, unfastening the other's bonds, he himself took the stick and stones, and thus they again went forth, and he who had first borne the stones now accompanied the other. Thus did each one acquit his obligation to the other, with more devotion and understanding than the Shrovetide season demands from persons of greater age, judgment, and obligations."

What stuns us is the children's penitensiya.   "The most pleasing and touching sight [in Ogmuc (Ormoc?)]," Chirino wrote, "was to see all the children disciplining themselves with scourges which they themselves had made for that day [Holy Thursday]."  These children were in the "very devout procession" that was formed after the sermon in the afternoon services.

It may be farfetched but we get reminded of what's in the multimedia press lately, the far-from-pleasant penitensiya that children--mostly altar boys--suffered in the hands of Roman catholic priests in some parts of the world, although we have yet to hear of similar tales in a Philippine sacristy or convento.

It's back to the basics of Philippine Roman catholicsms during this Holy Week: pasyon sung in various musical genres, traditional to modern; processions of images--antique and newly carved by Betis or Paite artisans--mounted on carrozas decorated by the town's gaggle of gays like floats for Baguio's Panagbenga Festival; and of course, the penitensiya of Good Friday. 

The early Pinoy Christians "were very careful in attending church," Chirino wrote, "and devout in confessing, especially during that first Lent; and showed great fervor in disciplining themselves, particularly during Holy Week; in the procession on that occasion there were many who scourged themselves until the blood came, and still others accompanied them, bearing four hundred lights, all preserving great silence and order."

Silence and order!  Barangay Cutod, it's hoopla time, the tourists are coming!

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