La Naval de Manila is an expression of a popular religiosity with a difference: It has minimal, almost imperceptible signs of emotionalism, sentimentality, and other seemingly irrational and odd behavior quite common in some popular devotions.
I vividly recall one oddity, though. It is unforgettable because it lasted a few Octobers in that a “white lady,” a 40-something woman dressed in an immaculate white garb with a Marian blue accent, used to stand on her toes on the center aisle of Santo Domingo Church while the novena prayers were being said. She would slowly pirouette with her hands clasped in prayer but pressed neither against her chest nor under her chin but at her back!
It was an acrobatic act that drew not a few glances. She then belted a few soprano notes from a Marian song, but the hearer could sense she did not really mean what she sang. She seemed out of her mind, and so was her song. If she wanted attention, she miserably failed to get it. The more rational people around her only gave her a faint if not a fake smile.
After a momentary distraction, the devotees turned their attention to the real “lady of the hour”—the beautiful Blessed Virgin, Our Lady of La Naval.
The novena prayers proceeded in their cool, calm and charming manner, highlighted by the angelic rendition of “Regina Sacratissimi Rosarii” by the Grand Choir of Sto. Domingo, featuring the Tiples de Sto. Domingo, the oldest existing boys’ choir of the Philippines.
The daily novena prayers culminated with the celebration of the Eucharist, brought to a thunderous finale with the singing of “Despedida a la Virgen.”
As a whole, the novena prayers to Our Lady of La Naval, although it is a people’s devotion, remains within the bounds of orthodoxy and sobriety sans the excesses that may be found in other expressions of popular religiosity.
The devotion to Our Lady of La Naval sprang out of a people’s concrete experience of danger from a powerful Protestant Dutch armada that threatened to seize the Philippines, which by then had begun to embrace the Catholic faith brought to the islands by the Spanish colonizers.
The much inferior Filipino-Spanish warriors manage to sink the more powerful warships and the indubitable fighting spirit of the Dutch to the bottom of the sea through five encounters that took place from March 15 to Oct. 4, 1646.
As the lopsided exchange of ammunitions was raging, Filipinos and Spaniards held a procession along the streets of Intramuros while unceasingly praying the Rosary.
Attributing the feat through the intercession of Our Lady, the people started to hold the novena prayers each year to celebrate the victory and to remind themselves that Our Lady of La Naval wanted them to hold on to and to deepen their Catholic faith.
Nurtured by Dominicans
If the devotion to Our Lady of La Naval de Manila is bereft of sentimentality and outrageous emotional outbursts, it is because it has always enjoyed the tutelage of the Dominicans who continuously nourish the devotion with faith and reason.
In the spirit of the great Dominican Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Dominicans disciplined the emotional manifestations of faith through doctrine and channelled them through artistic expressions.
The rendition of “Regina Sacratissimi Rosarii” and “Despedida a la Virgen” by the Tiples and the Grand Choir of Sto. Domingo, sometimes accompanied by the UST orchestra, is deeply emotional yet highly artistic. It is as if all emotions are poured into these and the other songs such that what remains of the devotion after artistic expression is faith more and more understood through reason.
The artistry of the image itself contributes to the pleasant ambience. The elaborate crown, the exquisite gown, the chiseled symmetry of the Lady’s face and that of the Baby Jesus are a feast for the eyes.
Bishops figure prominently in the yearly prayers as preachers and Mass presiders, which helps the devotion to toe the line of orthodoxy and sobriety.
One of the significant factors that make the devotion to La Naval devoid of gross sentimentality is that many if not most of its devotees are products of Catholic schools, which are mostly administered by the Dominicans: University of Santo Tomas (UST), Colegio de San Juan de Letran in Intramuros, Calamba, and Bataan; Siena College in Quezon City; Santa Catalina College on Legarda, Manila; Dominican College and Aquinas School in San Juan; Angelicum College in Quezon City; Dominican School in Manila and many others.
The students of these schools are encouraged to participate in the yearly festivities as choirs, marshals, honor guards, as human chain to keep the procession peaceful and orderly, or simply as attendees.
The devotion which, for many devotees, began with a little push from school authorities, remain with the students even after graduation. They nurture the devotion on their own as they keep in their hearts what the Catholic schools instilled in them: Mary is not adored; rather, she is revered as the Mother of God. Devotion to her should lead to her Son by listening to, pondering, and realizing in one’s life His teachings.
Instrument of protest
An example of realizing Jesus’ teaching in human life is the dismantling of the Marcos dictatorship that kept the country under martial law for over two decades.
While the Marcos regime began with palpable benefits for the people, many felt its abuses as years went by. Rights were curtailed, people were incarcerated or simply disappeared. The abuses reached their apex with the assassination of Benigno Aquino.
His remains donned with the blood-stained clothes he wore on the tarmac after the fatal shooting were carefully laid near the altar of Our Lady of La Naval de Manila in Sto. Domingo Church.
Months later, when people trooped to Edsa, the image of La Naval de Manila was also there in the middle of the rallies inspiring the people to never let go of their courage to declare that it is not right for a few to curtail human rights, to silence, to maim, and to kill just to stay in power! Indeed, it is against the values for which Mary’s Son died for.
There were no guns, no bullets, no violence in those rallies. Instead, rosaries were held by the Catholic faithful in their bare hands, and in between the singing of “Bayan Ko” they murmured the Hail Mary again and again as the image of Our Lady of La Naval stood aloft on its silver float.
Tool for evangelization
The Dominicans are very much aware that the devotion to Our Lady of La Naval, beyond being an authentic expression of popular religiosity, can also be a powerful tool for evangelization. Each year, the Dominican community of Sto. Domingo spend much time and effort deliberating on the theme to be reflected on during the nine days of prayers and Masses.
This year, the theme is Maria: Pagninilay at Pagpapahayag ng Mabuting Balita (Mary, Contemplating and Proclaiming the Good News). Last year, the theme was Maria, Ina ng Pananampalataya (Mary, Mother of Faith).
These themes show that the devotion to Our Lady of La Naval is intended to lead the devotees to a reflection of the Gospel so that its values may transform their lives. In the process, other Christs are nurtured and scattered all over the country, and perhaps beyond it, to become the light, the leaven, and the salt of the earth.
Indeed, through the devotion to Our Lady of La Naval, the Gospel, the Word of God, Jesus Christ, is made flesh many more times.