Catholic Devotion Taken to the Extreme

Around Manila
April 5, 2010

I have mentioned before that the Philippines has a largely Catholic population, with roughly 83% practicing.  And these are not casual church-goers either, but devoted followers of Christ.  While the majority of the time I am inspired by the spiritual practices of the Filipinos around me, during Holy Week I was struck by the fact even Catholicism, when taken to the extreme, can rapidly become dangerous and self-serving.

I think Neal H. Cruz’ article The Filipino Culture of Masochism, published by the Philippines Enquirer on Sunday the 4th gives good insight into the minority of Filipino Catholics who bring a whole new level of realism to Holy Week.

“Last Good Friday, human blood flowed, literally, in many parts of the Philippines as flagellants flogged themselves bloody and had themselves nailed to crosses in imitation of Jesus Christ. This primitive practice is so widespread (and still spreading) that it portrays the Philippines as a nation of masochists.

Why do Filipinos inflict pain on themselves? The penitents believe that by hurting themselves in imitation of Jesus, they would be forgiven their sins—the more painful, the more forgiveness. Others do so to keep vows (panata) made to God—to do the masochistic act every Good Friday in exchange for making a sick family member get well, or to get a job in the Middle East, etc. They believe that if they break the vow, God would punish them. So they do it year after year against common sense.

And the voyeurs, Filipinos and foreigners alike, lap it up. They flock to the places where penitents have themselves nailed, literally, to crosses; or on the roads where lines of penitents pass while flogging themselves silly, or plod bearing heavy wooden crosses while being flogged by assistants. Tourists find it so quaint, so weird, so curious, so exciting, so primitive; and local government officials (and perhaps also the Department of Tourism) encourage the masochism to attract tourists every year. It is no different from white tourists ogling black tribesmen dancing to the beat of tom-toms in “Darkest Africa.” All that is missing is Tarzan’s ape-cry reverberating through the treetops. And mass media plaster the spectacle on their news pages and television screens…

…Alas, this is not the correct way to practice the Christian religion, or even to atone for and ask forgiveness for one’s sins. If one is truly sorry for his sins and resolves never to commit them again, he does not have to flog or hurt himself or get himself nailed to a cross.

To guide its faithful followers, the Catholic Church should educate and wean them away from this form of masochism. True, some bishops and priests issue press statements during Holy Week, advising penitents not to continue the practice. But they have little effect because the Church does not warn, preach and advise strongly enough as much as it fights, for example, the reproductive health bill and divorce.

To have any effect, the warning should be preached from the pulpits and discussed in Catholic schools, not only during Holy Week but as often as possible. Churches should have pamphlets distributed after the Sunday Masses. Local government officials should be told by the Church and the national government to discourage and ban the practice.

Likewise, mass media should not play up this barbaric practice because the penitents like to see their pictures in media. It gives them celebrity status and makes them heroes of their villages. Instead of teaching the out-of-school youth of their villages, Filipinos hungry for recognition just have themselves nailed to a cross once a year and they achieve the near-immortality that they hunger for.”

I have to admit, going into Holy Week some part of me was hoping to see the sensationalistic events that take place in the country.  I even envied some of my photographer colleagues who I knew were going to shoot the re-enactments (note: my friend took the shot above).  It seemed grounded in honor and devotion to God, so how could that be wrong, I thought.

Upon reading this article and reflecting on my initial feelings toward the event, I can see how we are in fact keeping this “circus” going each year.  It seems as if the original honorable intentions of the practice have been replaced by either spiritual guilt/obligation or a misconstrued sense of worth in being identified as one of those who is willing to do this for their faith, thereby garnering attention and praise.

Unfortunately, unless someone mandates that this practice end, it seems as if the individuals will be perpetually stuck in this unhealthy cycle due to the intrinsic benefits they get from the physical act (spiritual redemption, adoration, admiration, honor, etc).  But then again, don’t these individuals have a right to express their religious beliefs in whatever way they see fit (assuming they’re not harming anyone but themselves)?

What are your thoughts on this topic?  Should it be stopped or allowed to continue in its current form?  I’d love to have some discussion around this, as I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit over the last week…

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  1. shyestviolet says:

    I hoped that, as a Catholic in the Philippines, we’d get to hear your take on this.

  2. minnesotagal says:

    I want to hear some discussion first, then I’ll throw my opinion in…

  3. Katrina Buetow says:

    This is crazy. I gasped out loud when I saw the man in the picture nailed to the cross. I do not think that when God said to follow in the footsteps of Christ, he didn’t mean one needs to follow in his footsteps of his death. Just my 2 cents.

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