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Holy Week: No Crucifixions, Please, We're Filipinos

Church Advises Against Severe Penitence in This Very Catholic Country

Holy Week dawned with the usual summertime heat here in Pampanga, Philippines. Roosters crowed, dogs barked, and the sun came up as usual in the general direction of the volcanic Mt. Arayat to our east.

We set off at 7am for the Immaculate Conception Parish Church in Balibago, Angeles City. One trike ride and three jeeps later, we arrived shortly after eight. As with most mid-size Catholic churches here, it's a white, Spanish-style building. It holds a couple thousand worshipers.

The first mass of the day was already in progress, and we joined the few hundred people milling about in the sun. Dozens of small vendors were offering the same palm fronds; we bought three for a little more than a dollar.

Soon enough, we joined the crush of people waiting to get inside. It was a civilized crush, this being the affable Philippines. Most were clearly distressed by the heat, a ceaseless aspect of life here, but there were no elbows thrown or sharp words exchanged (even uttered) as people pressed toward the side entrance we had chosen.

Upon hearing the measured applause that accompanies the end of Mass here, the crowd surged a bit. The doors opened, a mass of people started to leave, as a second mass entered simultaneously.

We suddenly felt a blast of cool air. The long-advertised "aircon program" had been put in place, and the church sanctum now offered a welcome respite from the diabolic sun one grows to hate here at 14 degrees latitude.

Once inside, I counted 24 new LG aircon units, each about eight feet in height. My rough guess says several million pesos went into this project. They were set between 79 and 82 degrees fahrenheit, an improvement of at least 20 degrees from the normal climate inside this church. It felt wonderful.

As the mass began, people quickly surged forward, waving their fronds, approaching the clergy to get a splash of holy water onto their palms and on themselves.

A Philippine mass is a modestly cheerful affair. Bible passages are read quickly but enthusiastically, and the short sermon in tagalog and English unfailingly makes a simple point with a touch or two of humor. Respectful applause follows it as well.

After the mass, we surged back outside, as the next group surged in. Masses would continue throughout the day. We headed back south to our barangay in San Fernando.

The City of San Fernando, Pampanga is well-known for its extreme observance of Good Friday. Known as "Maleldo" here--a contraction of the local-language words for "bad" and "day," but more properly translated as Holy Day--the Friday before Easter features processions, flagellants, and crucifixions that are reported worldwide.

Church leaders have urged people to refrain from the scourgings and crucifixions, noting that they seem to be staged to hustle tourist dollars as much as they represent devotion. The city's website promotes them, and the federal government's Department of Transportation ran a press release in local newspapers celebrating them.

As a bishop in Metro Manila said,"It is enough to remember the life and death of Jesus Christ during Holy Week through fasting, abstinence, prayer, reflection, and almsgiving," according to an article in the The Manila Bulletin.

Even in fasting, the church urges moderation, defining a fast as one normal meal and two small ones. Ironically, this is more than millions of Filipinos can afford on the best of days.

I decided to skip the gory spectacles. This is not Spain, I am not Hemingway, and it's not the 1920s; anyone who wishes to witness this stuff can find it easily enough on YouTube.

The Week Progresses

As Holy Week begins, schools have been let out for the summer, which runs here from March through June, when the monsoonal rains are due. Thursday and Friday were national holidays. The malls were closed, as were most small stores and government offices.

The thousands of ferries and hundreds of thousands of buses were full of people fleeing Metro Manila to return to their home provinces.

The churches, Catholic and others, held their Maundy Thursday services in the evening and their Good Friday services in the morning. Many people flocked to grotto services at dawn on Friday.

Saturday was also a slow day, albeit one in which you could again buy manok (chicken) for dinner or some Red Horse for a family get-together.

No newspapers, though, because even ink-stained wretches got the day off on Friday.

Many people in the Philippines will awake Sunday morning to "salubong," an hours-long ritual and procession in which the risen Jesus greets his mother Mary. It is a uniquely Filipino ritual; this one is favored by the Church, as it reflects maternal fidelity and celebrates the joy of Easter.

As with most gatherings here, it will be simultaneously respectful and cheerful. The Pampangan Maleldo's theatrics are an unfortunate aberration that do not reflect the character of "ordinary Filipinos," as people refer to themselves here.

Heavy Faith, Worn Lightly

It is my impression that although the Philippines is a heavily Catholic country, it is one in which most people wear their faith lightly.

This country now numbers 92 million souls; maybe 85% of them profess to be Roman Catholic. To be sure, the presence of a sizable Muslim community, a few million Protestants, the homegrown Iglesia ni Cristo, a tiny Jewish community, and other faiths here makes little impact on The Church's influence.

Divorce is not allowed, birth control uncommon, and legalized abortion unthinkable. The Church recently got into a terrific row with a government leader who favored the use of condoms.

Yet family trumps even religion in this conservative place, and the daily struggles of life tend to center people around what is concrete rather than what is spiritual. So this week has been one of family members getting together--whether traveling hundreds of miles to a home province or a few kilometers to a neighboring town or barangay.

Music is played, food is prepared, and copious amounts of "tsismis" (gossip) exchanged.

Laughter is found in abundance anytime two or more Filipinos gather. Since being alone is the worst thing imaginable to people here, laughter is always found in abundance; during Holy Week, even more so.

More Stories By Roger Strukhoff

Roger Strukhoff (@IoT2040) is Executive Director of the Tau Institute for Global ICT Research, with offices in Illinois and Manila. He is Conference Chair of @CloudExpo & @ThingsExpo, and Editor of SYS-CON Media's CloudComputing BigData & IoT Journals. He holds a BA from Knox College & conducted MBA studies at CSU-East Bay.