Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Nazarene's nightmare

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

“This restless multitude, confused or orderly, the immensity of which terrifies us: this ocean of humanity whose slow, monotonous wave-flows trouble the hearts even of those whose faith is most firm…” A line from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s “Hymn of the Universe.”

When I read this again in the first week of the New Year, it was as if I was reading it for the first time. Chardin might have been referring to something else but I could not help thinking of the Jan. 9 feast of the Black Nazarene which was expected to draw eight million devotees. And for this, thousands of policemen were to be fielded, many of them pulled out from their regular duties.

I am writing this piece while the so-called ocean of humanity is moving and groaning toward its destination, the Quiapo Church. There is no word yet on how many hours it might take for the andas carrying the Black Nazarene to navigate the winding six kilometers. Last year it took almost 24 hours.

Year after year analysts, researchers and academics try to explain from their high horse this one-of-a-kind expression of faith while true believers describe the miracles in their own lives in simple words. I have written—with awe, sometimes—about this phenomenon a number of times. This time, I am sorry to say, I am not in the mood for a cosmic-anthropological, socio-cultural or psycho-spiritual treatise. Not after the tragedies that have happened to crowds and communities here and elsewhere. Some warnings are in order.

I would be the last one to criticize the teeming masses’ raw and sometimes desperate display of faith in the miraculous Poong Hesus Nazareno, the blackened image of Jesus the Nazarene carrying his cross to Calvary. At some point in our lives, many of us will also experience being marooned in that place that lies between hope and despair and we become like that bleeding woman who stalked Jesus so she could touch his cloak and be healed of her infirmity.

Now, having said that, I would be the first to ask why such fervent display of devotion by millions leaves in its wake tons and tons of garbage. Three hundred tons last year, says Metro Manila Development Authority Chair Francis Tolentino without batting an eyelash. Ask ko lang, isn’t cleanliness next to godliness?

I don’t know how Catholic Church authorities view the progressive transmogrification of this religious event. It is taking on new characteristics as the years go by. The feast used to be a one-day affair, with the procession starting from the Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Quiapo, the home of the Black Nazarene, then going through the streets of the Quiapo area only. And back.

Now, two days are needed for the event to be completed. The Black Nazarene now goes to the Luneta grandstand, from where begins the traslacion or the procession back to Quiapo. Even that short distance to the church took almost 24 hours last year. The andas stalled after the tires gave way.

But the more terrifying aspect is the size of the crowd. How do Church authorities view this? Is the crowd size an indication of the growth in Church membership, uncatechized though the majority might be?

Is crowd behavior something Church officials watch with delight? People hurtling through the air like Olympic gymnasts and landing on the Black Nazarene’s podium, sweaty towels being tossed, the jostling, the fainting, the rapture before dying.

Or do Church officials consider this a reflection of their shortcomings in reining in the fervid masses and leading them to a more reflective, rational, practice of their faith? How separate true faith from superstition, true faith from touristic exhibitionism?

I might as well ask: Shouldn’t there be a law against true-to-life crucifixions? Those raring to be crucified should have DIY (do it yourself) crucifixions and hang there by their lonesome. Otherwise, their floggers, thorn-crowners and nail-drivers should be booked for frustrated murder.

The feast of the Black Nazarene is a police nightmare. Nightmare No. 1 is crowd control. How do you make sure that the eight million bodies squeezed tightly together do not explode into a stampede at the slightest provocation? How prevent devotees in an altered state of consciousness from turning into a hysterical mob? If this occurs, what are the police and the monsignors to do next?

Remember the stampede years ago of those waiting for tickets to the game show “Wowowee” and the scores who died? Remember the dozens who died in Bulacan when an overloaded pagoda capsized during a religious fluvial procession?

Nightmare No. 2 is the possibility of terrorist acts targeted at the crowd. Last year, rumors of this nature did not prevent the barefoot, crimson-clad millions from fulfilling their yearly panata (vow) to join the rituals.

Nightmare No. 3 has to do with health. The faint of heart, the hypoglycemic, the very young and the very old will hardly survive the procession. But still they come.

As this phenomenon grows in size and duration, it gets more and more difficult for law enforcers to ensure order, safety and cleanliness. What are Church authorities doing so that believers translate their spirituality into love for the planet by not leaving their garbage even while they leave their petitions with the Poon?

Are Church personages helpless against what is rumored to be a closed-circuit cabal that controls the Nazareno and calls the shots on how the traslacion should proceed?

One cannot legislate how faith is to be expressed, but there should be limits on how it impacts on the immediate surroundings and government resources.

O Hesus, Poong Nazareno!