I identify fully with the concept of folk Catholicism. It’s an idea expressed by Pope Benedict XVI in defining the robust religiosity of Filipinos. I must admit, I’m one folk Catholic. My faith grew in the ways of folk Catholicism. I thrive on it because I am able to relate to Jesus Christ my Savior in a tactile way.
Critics say folk Catholicism manifests aspects of idolatry and fanaticism. Examples: the penitensya flagellants on Holy Thursdays and the male devotees of the Black Nazarene, esoteric interpretations of scriptural events, but scriptural nevertheless in substance and spirit, although indigenous in expression.
Could the penitensya flagellants be imitative of Christ’s scourging at the pillar? Could the male deboto of Black Nazarene be like the repentant thief at the cross who asked Christ to remember him when he gets to paradise? Surely God appreciates indigenous prayers. They say if you’re a clown, you can praise God by clowning. And God will laugh.
Folk sociology reveals itself in many of our Catholic rituals that combine the celebratory and the contemplative. Vibrancy is inherent in symbolic objects, incantations, meaningful gestures, vestments and Eucharistic food.
The Lenten season dramatizes all these: the ash on the forehead in the shape of the cross, the waving of fronds on Palm Sunday, the processions on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the wailing hymn of the Pabasa, the Visita Iglesia to seven churches, the journey of the 14 stations of the cross, the tearjerker oratory of the Seven Last Words, and the triumphant Salubong on Easter. All the liturgies are imbued with the spirituality of the Gospel.
Respect for elders
Much of our folksiness is not found in American and European Catholicism. Simbang Gabi on Christmas originated from our farm sectors, and the “Mano Po Ninong” for Christmas gifts is a Filipino value of respect for elders.
Our matriarchal bonding with the Blessed Mother Mary exists in many of our thematic festivities and devotions: Our Mother of Perpetual Help, the Antipolo Virgin, Santisimo Rosario, Virgen de Peñafrancia, and the Virgin Mother of Manaoag.
Some folksy acts of veneration are creations of native imagination: dressed up carabaos kneeling in front of the church in Pulilan, the Pahiyas harvest fiesta in Lucban, the Virgen de Turumba jumping procession in Pakil, and the women’s fertility dance of Sta. Clara in Obando.
In reality, folk Catholicism encompasses a bigger-than-life role in the lives of Filipino Catholics. The Filipino culture is predominantly a Catholic culture. We are church-bound from womb to tomb.
Baptism is our initial passage in becoming a social and spiritual constituent. We are married in the church to establish our status as family heads and parents to our children. We attend religious and social obligations.
The friar-led evangelization during Spain’s 400 years (1521-1898) of colonial rule planted the seeds and nurtured the growth of Catholicism in the archipelago. The stone church in the center of town was not only the trademark of a Catholic community, but also the symbol of an administered township.
The church bell tolled the hour and town events within a five-kilometer radius. The “Doctrina Christiana” booklet was the first printed medium of instruction distributed nationwide.
The transformation from our ancestors’ animist belief into the Christian concept of man-God born of a woman resonated with the intuitive feminism in our precolonial years. Our first convert to Christianity was the Queen of Cebu, who felt attracted to the image of Sto. Niño in 1521.
Beyond the pulpit
Early in the 16th century, the teaching Church transferred Gospel knowledge to the flock using their native language. The Church went beyond the pulpit by building schools and universities (University of Santo Tomas recently celebrated its 400th year), extending the scope of knowledge acquisition for professional careers. The various religious orders took the lead in the three-pronged task of evangelization, education and charitable works.
The doctrinal pillars of Catholicism, as interpreted in folk Catholicism, rest on two scriptural dictums. First is the concept of the church as The Teaching Authority, just as Jesus Christ was. Second is the central concept in Catholicism that the church is a Sacramental Agent, just as Jesus Christ instituted.
The Sacramental Agent role of the church is integral in family and social life in the Philippines. Sacraments are sanctifying. They embody womb-to-tomb commitment. They are institutions of faith that bind the flock with the salvific design of God for mankind. Catholic culture drives a holistic way of life.
Folk Catholicism is the secret of our church’s durability and integrity. It is symmetrical to our racial culture. All our family values—obeying our parents, respect for elders, fidelity in marriage—are inspired by Christianity. It’s the same with Truth in Christ, Sanctity of Life, and Fear of God—reasons enough for a simple child-like faith.
Folk Catholicism is the conceptual tribute made by John Paul’s friend and successor, Pope Benedict XVI, in proclaiming to the world the enormity and vibrancy of Catholicism in the Philippines. The Pope recently acknowledged this unique Filipino niche when he professed his confidence in the growth of Catholicism in the frontiers of Africa and Asia. The late Pope John Paul II considered the Philippines the bastion of Christianity in the modern world.
Filipino folk Catholicism stands tall in the world. Only in the Philippines will you find churches jampacked on Sundays and important feasts. Many cathedrals in Europe which were once deserted museum pieces are now filled by Filipino OFWs. They energize worship with their amazing brand of folk Catholicism.