Connect to share and comment

A unique, conflicted country

Jan. 9 is the Feast of the Black Nazarene in the Philippines, a religious tradition that began in the 17th century. Thousands of barefoot Filipino men congregate at Manila’s Quiapo Church to take part in a procession of the statue of the Black Nazarene. Devotees swear the Black Nazarene performs miracles, and so on this day, rain or shine, those who wish to be cured of illness will try to touch the statue. Those who can’t get near will ask the men to pass along handkerchiefs or white towels to wipe the religious icon.

Each year, the sight of this sea of men heaving and inching their way toward the church, where the statue will rest, is awe-inspiring. Few events in this country underscore the deep Catholic faith in Filipinos. This year, devotees to the Black Nazarene are expected to increase as replicas of the statue have been distributed to other cities for the first time.

For a journalist like myself, covering a country with such a colorful religious tradition can be fascinating. The Philippines’ rich Roman Catholic history and everything that flows from it — the good and the bad — is a gold mine of stories. Filipinos are known, for instance, for being fatalistic. "Bahala na" is a Tagalog expression that means, literally, “come what may” but is actually used to invoke divine guidance or intervention. From planting rice to launching “people power” revolutions, God is always at the center of it all. Whether this faith has served Filipinos in good stead is, of course, subject to debate.

Add to all this its experience with imperialism (mainly with Spain and the U.S., briefly with Japan; or what some historians had described as “300 years in a Spanish convent and 50 years in Hollywood) and we have a country that is at once unique but conflicted, constantly in a flux but not quite going  anywhere.

To journalists enthralled by these contradictions, such is the mystique of the Philippines.