It was Holy Week of 2012 when I accompanied my Filipino-Australian cousin Jeremy Baltazar to witness one of what can be considered the extreme acts of devotion in the Philippines, the flagellants doing the “penitensya”.
Jeremy said that watching a Filipino penitent engage in self-flagellation is indeed not for the faint of heart.
During my younger days, I used to wait for the procession of the “penitensya” coming from the Malibay area in Pasay City . Perhaps due to curiosity as a child , I usually sit in the sidewalk and wonder why they do this practice every Good Friday.
Filipino Catholics are known for having sincere, enormous and extreme expressions of piety considering that the country is the third-largest Catholic population in the world.
The fervent devotion and faith shown by devotees became a prime manifestation of the fusion of Catholic and secular beliefs and practices of Filipinos.
Lent is the commemoration of the suffering, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a 40-day-long observance that begins on Ash Wednesday, and ends with Easter Sunday.
As Catholics see this season as a time for personal conversion and atonement, many Filipinos perform traditions in the week leading to Easter in the hope they will be cleansed of sins and illnesses and their wishes might be granted.
Devotees flock to churches for confessions and prayers like novenas and the Way of the Cross. Penance and sacrifices such as abstaining from eating meat and fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are also observed.
Some penitents have enacted a much greater mortification on Good Friday – flagellation and crucifixion.
Flagellation (from Latin flagellare, to whip) rituals were built around processions, hymns, distinct gestures, uniforms, and discipline.
Flagellants – hooded, half-naked men- scourge themselves by first cutting their backs, chest, arms and legs. with a blade or knife then whip their backs with bamboo-tipped burillos or with whips embedded with thorns and glass shards as the blood flows out of their wounds.
Some participants carry crosses through local churches, then lie on scorching concrete pavements, with arms spread as they are hit on the back with wooden paddles as an act of full surrender to the mercy of God.
For many flagellants, it is not enough that they confess their sins. Serious injuries must be inflicted upon themselves so that they will be convinced that their sins have been forgiven. They believe that by punishing the body, the sins would be absolved and the soul would be more potent.
Some do it as an act of sacrifice for the welfare of their families or to re-live the pain and sacrifice of Christ in the hands of the Roman soldiers
Flagellation and self- flagellation were widespread practices in some parts of the Catholic ministry.
It was even featured in “The Da Vinci Code” wherein Silas, an Opus Dei albino monk, whips himself with a “discipline,” or knotted cord while wearing the cilice – a spiked chain worn on the upper thigh as a reminder of Christ’s suffering.
It was during the 2013 Moriones festival in Torrijos, Marinduque that I witnessed an actual live crucifixion. The Moriones refers to the masked and costumed penitents who march around the town for seven days searching for Longinus.
The re-enactment of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion started as the staging in Holy week of 1955. of the street play “Via Crucis” in Pampanga by poet-playwright Ricardo Navarro with Pedro Cutud as the artist who was ‘crucified’. The actual live crucifixion only happened in 1961 when Arsenio Añoza made a vow to nail himself to a cross every Holy Friday.
Penitencya and crucifixion are sometimes associated with “religious dark tourism” which attract thousands of local and international tourists every year to watch the gory displays of faith in a fervently Catholic nation.
Remembering the passion and death of Christs through flagellation and crucifixion became the perfect ingredient of visitor economy.
Health officials has consistently reminded participants to ensure that nails and other sharp objects that will be used during the acts are well sterilized to avoid contracting tetanus infection.
However, they warned there is no assurance that the sterilization would not cause infection because of exposure to various elements in the course of penitence.
A disturbing practice is using a razor blade or a small wooden plank embedded with glass shards to prick the skin of the back and initiate bleeding before the flogging starts. In most cases, only one such implement is used on several penitents.
The Catholic Church has discouraged these activities which it considers as extreme misinterpretation of faith.
“We are doubtful that these are real expressions of Christian faith. These are expressions of superstitious beliefs and usually done for tourism purposes,” the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) said in a 2015 statement.
(Peyups is the moniker of University of the Philippines. Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 09175025808 or 09088665786.)