Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales criticized the “excessive devotion” of millions of Filipino Catholics to the Black Nazarene. Living lives of simplicity and selflessness, said the Cardinal, would constitute real devotion, rather than the mad rush to get on or near the carriage bearing the statue of the dark Christ so one can kiss the image or wipe it with a handkerchief. Two people died and some 400 were injured in this year’s celebration of the Black Christ’s transfer from the old city of Intramuros to the Quiapo Church nearly 300 years ago.

The Cardinal’s advice to live simply couldn’t have been addressed to a less likely crowd. We can safely assume that only a very, very few, or even none, of the estimated two million devotees that braved the heat and crush of the five kilometer procession from Manila’s Luneta Park to Quiapo Church owned several mansions or fleets of cars, regularly went on vacations in the US to visit Disneyland, or feasted on $20,000 dinners at Le Cirque and Bobby Van’s Steak House.

On the contrary. By the law of averages, over 20 percent of those who displayed “excessive devotion” to the Black Nazarene were among the record number of 24 million Filipinos that Social Weather Stations has found have gone hungry in the last three months. They subsists on two meals a day, usually watery gruel and salt. Many of them live over fetid esteros or in the other substandard housing in which half the Philippine population of 90 million live. Most of them can’t afford to send their children to school, or even the most basic health care.

The “excessive devotion” Catholic Church leaders have been criticizing for years is almost solely true of the poor. Noli de Castro, his bodyguards discreetly in the background, may have been briefly in the Black Nazarene procession this year. But no one saw the likes of Prospero Nograles, Manuel Villar, or Noynoy Aquino in it, and for a perfectly good reason. The poor’s extreme devotion to the rites and images of the Catholic Church is driven by the desperation inevitable in an unjust and uncaring social system.

If that system were otherwise just, if it were otherwise fair, if it did not force so many people to live in hunger, misery and uncertainty, the churches would be as empty as they are in Europe, and only a few hundreds would be in attendance in the next feast of the Black Nazarene.

The Feast of the Black Nazarene is the prelude to a season characterized by, among others, the same or even worse “excessive devotion” by the Philippine folk. The practice of, literally, imitating Christ by having one’s self crucified — with real nails and without anesthesia — has put the country in the world’s list of oddities. Tourists from all over the world have discovered the practice, and every year they come to oh and ah as dozens of men and women are nailed to crosses in Pampanga and elsewhere in the hope that their sacrifice and divine intervention will make their lives better.

The devotion that drives men and women to risk life and limb in a sea of heaving humanity, or to bear the pain of having nails driven into their palms and feet, is a form of suffering that’s also an expression of protest against the kind of undeserved suffering that goes by the name of poverty and its handmaiden, misery, that afflicts millions of men and women in this, the only Catholic country in Asia.

But though a form of protest, the “excessive devotion” Cardinal Rosales has criticized also helps keep things as they are. Mass anxiety over the future, and such maddeningly persistent problems as fraudulent elections, warlordism, crime and violence, and joblessness is rising, but religion keeps the suicide rates manageable, and prevents mass despair from morphing into the mass uprising both Church and State have feared for centuries.

It’s true that, as one study has found, more and more Filipinos are clinically depressed and require professional treatment. But the devout can find both consolation and therapy in the hopes and promises of religion, with its visions of an afterlife in which the good are rewarded rather than punished, and the evil condemned to hellfire rather than to prosperity and power over others as in this life. As Charles Kingsley, Canon of the Church of England said over a hundred years ago, “We (the Churches) have used the Bible as if it were a mere special constable’s handbook, an opium dose for keeping beasts of burden patient while they are being overloaded, a mere book to keep the poor in order.”

A more unlikely source, the Marquis de Sade, might as well have been talking of the Philippines when he said through one of his fictional characters that religion is at least partly responsible for the contradiction between a country’s natural wealth and its people’s poverty. The people are poor not because they’re lazy, said de Sade, but because of state policies, which among others encourages refuge in the promises of an afterlife. “Drugged, they do not feel their hurts.”


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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