Thursday, January 19, 2006

Santo Ninos, rapture and tragedies

Another religion-related tragedy has claimed the lives of at least 20, the majority of them innocents who, when they set off, had no idea that their foolhardy elders were taking them to their watery graves.

Last Sunday, the feast of the Holy Infant Jesus or the Santo Nino, a boat overloaded with devotees and their children capsized in the waters off San Ricardo town on Panaon Island in Southern Leyte. The boat named ML Jun Jay was part of a fluvial procession, a festive display that often highlights religious feasts in places that are near bodies of water.

Overcrowded boats, uncaring public officials, unmindful church officials, fevered rapture and carefree abandon on the part of devotees—all these are the ingredients of impending disaster. It had happened several times before, it happened again on one of the Filipinos’ beloved of feasts. And most of the victims were children like the Santo Nino.

But if ill-managed fluvial processions are the recipe for tragedies, they also say a lot about the Filipinos’ penchant for public display of religious fervor that borders on fanaticism and recklessness. No one could say what spiritual merits or demerits could come from all these. I leave that to God to decide.

It is hard to fathom the motives, the reasons and the urgency that push people to participate in these life-threatening faith-related activities, such as getting crucified while roasting in the deadly summer heat, risking being trampled on during the feast of the Black Nazarene or squeezing into overloaded boats. Two people died during the Black Nazarene ``surge’’ (human tsunami is more like it) last week that is not seen anywhere in the world.

Some do it as panata (a vow) because of prayers that have been granted, others do it to buttress pending petitions, and there are those who simply feel good being there with the hope grace would rain down on them.

With the exception of the messy crucifixion, the other religious-cultural festivities aren’t supposed to be life threatening if only these are properly organized and controlled. But we never learn.

In 1993, 269 perished in the murky river in Bocaue, Bulacan when a pagoda-boat packed with devotees capsized. Similar tragedies happened in Lumban, Laguna; Butuan City and Pampanga in the past decade. These are all so relatively recent that after a few clicks of the computer keys by the Inquirer research staff the news stories on these tragedies quickly tumbled out.

And was it at the Penafrancia feast that a makeshift structure, from where people watched the fluvial procession, collapsed?

Grim and determined Bible-thumping purists will easily dismiss all this Pinoy frenzy as plain idolatry. As a Christian and Catholic, I have never felt inclined to make such practices part of my spiritual itinerary. But as a Filipino, ah, I love watching this faith-filled cultural display. Who am I to judge the state of the soul of those who practice this type of popular religiosity?

Beholding the faith and fervor of the masa could be a confounding experience. And it would be good for those who seem to have had their faith all theologically and biblically figured out to come down from their perch. There is a lot to learn from hobnobbing with the hoi polloi for whom spiritual ecstasy might come easy with only the Marian hymns in Baclaran on Wednesdays. Or in being lost in the heady mist of incense in Quiapo church and knowing in their heart of hearts that God listens and has mercy.

Still it wouldn’t hurt if the church hierarchy would do something to rein in the excess fervor even for the simple reason that God does not want to see the multitude falling all over themselves and to their deaths. But that is the Pinoy, one might argue, and this trait is perhaps what keeps many from choosing death by suicide.

This affection for the Santo Nino, academics would say, is reflective of the Filipino’s amazing childlike faith that also often borders on the childish. How do you explain the transmogrification of the image of the Infant Jesus of Prague into a nino with multiple personalities?

If the parish you went to last Sunday was one attended by people from all walks of life, you would have seen Santo Ninos also from all walks of life and dressed according to their owners’ taste, inclination and predilection. The Santo Nino has now become a doll to be fancily dressed up like a Barbie or an infant transvestite. But macho Santo Ninos in police uniform are now also fairly common.

At Mass last Sunday I saw a Santo Nino in denim overalls carried by a young woman who was wearing the shortest denim shorts. (Only in Catholic churches. You don’t see this kind of Sunday wear in the Iglesia ni Cristo.) Well, in order not to be discomfited and discombobulated by the surreal-ness of it all I chose to be amused.

Elsewhere that day, while ``Pit Senor!’’ exploded in Cebu and the ati-atihan thundered with ``Hala Bira!’’ in Kalibo, ninos and ninas drowned in Southern Leyte.

It’s real and it’s surreal. As the great Nick Joaquin wrote: ``So how much more manifold do you want the Philippines to be? From orgasmic Kalibo to tranquil Boracay. Or from the hot mystic lowlands of Pangasinan to the cold mystic highlands of Baguio. From the mega that is Manila to the mini that is a Ma’i village. Within this archipelago you commute between the 20th century and the prehistoric, between 13th century gothic and baroque, between the Islamic and the Hispanic, between the East and West, here met and mated.

``Hala bira! Which means: Sock it to me!’’