My plane landed at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila on time. The driver was waiting for me at the gate. After two hours drive in the heavy traffic of the city I arrived at RVA-ASIA headquarter. Just outside the house where I was going to stay there was a statue of Jesus caring a big cross: “The Black Nazarene” as the Filipinopeople call him.
The statue, under a small tent intended to protect it from the blazing sun, intrigued me. The face of the Nazarene was black, the dress, an old stile heavy velvet tunic, unusual for a crucified, the braided long wig out of date.
Few days passed and this image didn’t leave my imagination. Many thoughts came to mind about my faith and the way I live it; about my mission of bringing the Good News and the way I fulfill it. I could not but think about the faithful in my parishes and the way they live their own faith.
The Black Nazarene arrived in Philippines from Mexico in 1606, crossing the ocean in a Spanish galleon, the powerful fleet that dominated the world at that time, and it was enshrined in the Minor Basilica of Black Nazarene in Quiapo, a district of Manila.
A legend accompany the statue. The Filipino who saw it for the first time told that his black color was due to the smoke of the candles the crew of the galleon lighted, during the journey, in order to pay respect to the image. But such a story seemed not very convincing so another one, more reliable, replaced it: a widespread fireoccurred during the trip from Mexico, it attacked the statue that was miraculously saved, but maintained its black color. In reality a more simple and less miraculous story is instead true: the statue was simply carved in a black Mexican wood.
During the centuries the Black Nazarene became the center of Filipino devotion. Three times a year the statue is brought in procession outside the shrine where it’s located. Before the procession the people gather at the shrine, from all over Philippines, and follow the Black Nazarene. The sight is stunning. A long queue of human bodies pressed one against the other fills the wide street. For hours the faithful try to touch the statue sure that the miraculous image will give them what they ask. “Seek people, women that cannot have children, people struck by any kind of misfortune, all want to get close and touch even the edge of the Nazarene clock, hopping toreceive a miracle. There are often accidents, many people are injured because of this “holy” struggle.” said our guide that accompany us in Intramuros.
It’s a human ocean, up to 6 million people, that follows the Black Nazarene. People who live their faith loudly, emotionally. Even though Philippines experience the effects of secularization – less church goers, less vocations, more people attracted by different sects – they identify themselves as a Catholic Nation.
Looking at the procession, as spectator, mind goes to the gospel experience where a large crowd follows the charismatic teacher of Galilee. The people joining thecrowd had a great need of “salvation”. They were poor, they were seek, they were oppressed, they were desperate, they were abandoned, they needed a healer oreven a guru that could cure their bodies and their minds and give them hope. They needed a man that could make them feel part of a just and caring community. It was not a rational fellowship, but an emotional one, it was a religious need because only God could fulfilled it.
The stunning spectacle of the Black Nazarene embodies the deep need of salvation present in every human being. Every person that passes in this world needs life,decent, safe life, life that can be planed because open to the future. Sicknesses, poverty, solitude, exploitation, deprive human life of its dignity and make it uncertain,lacking of meaning.
The great procession of the Dark Nazarene it’s at the edge between religion and superstition, said somebody, but its external expressions are similar every where in the world and are present in every religion.
As the Nazarene proceed to his destination and the number of injured grows a doubt about the meaning of this crowd’s faith is left behind. “The Filipino people seethemselves as poor, oppressed and abandoned, people with difficult lives with uncertain future and they identify themselves with the suffering Nazarene. They believe that some kind of consolation can come only from him, the one who shares and understands their sufferings. They feel that only the crucified is close and listen to themtherefore they don’t feel ashamed to join the procession and struggle in order to touch the Black Nazarene” explain our guide in Intramuros.
Religion drove the faithful far from the real world, sometime, promising a shining, but far paradise, forgetting that life is, first of all, here.
The Black Nazarene procession is maybe neither the purest expression of faith nor the perfect model of discipleship – at the end of the day “All left Jesus after eating the bread” said the evangelist – but it reminds the skeptical bystander that faith and life have to go side by side and religion is meaningful only if it has a close relationship with present life, enabling the believer to make the world he lives in more human.