By Molly Igoe
“Sacred spaces can be urban areas. They don’t always have to be shrines,” said Jose Alain Austria during his lecture on the Black Nazarene procession. The Assistant Professor of history at De La Salle College of Saint Benilde in Manila gave the talk titled, “Between Ritual and Riot: The Black Nazarene Procession and the Geopolitics of Manila as a Sacred Space” on Oct. 27 to an audience at Washington College.
The procession, the largest in the Philippines, takes place on Jan. 9 through the streets of Quiapo in Manila. Dating back to the 17th century, millions of people parade through the streets following a life-sized, black wooden statue of Jesus of Nazarene. The procession has become a male rite of passage in modern day Philippenes.
Dr. Joseph Prud’homme, professor of political science and the director of the Institute for the Study of Religion, Politics, and Culture at WC introduced the talk with his own observation. “All participants in this procession are low income, low educated men, which is the opposite trend of religious devotion in the United States where those with lower incomes and less education are less likely to be religious,” he said.
Austria began the talk by saying that the procession is a controversial event in the Philippines because of some recent fatalities. Three people died in 2001 and two this year.
He projected three photos for the audience to represent different aspects of the religious procession. The first was of a man almost completely covered in tattoos, who in American culture may have been mistaken for a prison convict or gang member. In fact, Austria knew the man, and said he was a benevolent and charitable citizen.
The belief is that the participants of the Black Nazarene procession are poor, and the event is known as “a poor man’s thing,” but like assumptions of the tattooed man, this is not the full story.
The second image displayed was of a young boy who had fainted and was being carried by the crowd. Austria explained that the boy had not fainted from illness, but from an “ecstasy” or an “altered state of conscience,” which is a common phenomenon in Southeast Asia.
The third image showed women walking with religious icons after the recent typhoon that destroyed much of the country. The profound impact of the photo was that the women were carrying the icons to heal the spirit of the people, while the aid and United Nations workers were there to help residents with material needs.
Austria then showed a video of the procession from 2014, which took 26 hours because of a large crowd of at least 500,000 people who gathered around the cross during the mass. The commotion surrounding the procession stems from the belief that miracles will happen if participants touch the cross, known as tactile piety. This is a common belief held by Filipino Catholics. Tactile refers to the fact that the religios object can be touched.
There were originally two Jesus of Nazarene statues. The first was ornate and completely made of gold. It was replaced by a wooden one brought by a Mexican priest in 1606 that could be touched by the people. This statue became known as the “Nazarene of the Poor” and was transferred to the Church of Quiapo in 1787 where it still resides today.
When did the “riot-like” procession of today begin? Austria said that they became more chaotic and less ordered in the late 1930s when middle class residents began moving out of Quiapo for other areas and the area became mainly working class families. After WWII, inner-city males became the most dominant participants in the procession, which added elements of rowdiness and machismo behavior not seen before.
There was then a period from the 1950s to the 1990s where the procession descended into organized chaos with few fatalities. Today, the main concern is security, especially in the wake of 9/11 and the rise of terrorist groups. Other concerns include massive crowds and figuring out a safe route that can accommodate all the people.
Despite these hurdles, the people of the Philippines continue the procession each year on Jan. 9, gathering to honor their faith and their unique culture.