Faith and the Church

Faith is so intertwined with nearly every aspect of the daily lives of Filipinos that it is hard to say precisely where religion ends and the rest of society begins. A quick look at our mass media and the way we conduct politics and business will show how blurred the boundaries are. As a sociologist, I often find myself wondering if the strict differentiation of faith matters that is supposed to come with secular modernity will ever happen in our society.

An example from my own personal encounter with religion might illustrate this. Sometime last year, my brother, Pampanga Auxiliary Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, who is also the parish priest of the Holy Rosary Parish in Angeles City, spoke to each one of us, his 12 siblings, asking for voluntary donations to a fund he had started. It was the first time he ever asked for anything from us.  The money, he explained, would be used to buy from the banks small pieces of land on which a chapel stands. Although I am not a churchgoer, I do not hesitate to contribute to the Church’s charities and social action projects. But giving money to buy land for a Church, that, as far as I know, already owns a lot of real estate, was a little difficult to justify.

I would gladly give money anytime to my brother, a deeply spiritual person I admire. But what he was seeking was not a personal favor but a contribution to a religious cause he thought important. I had many questions in my mind, and, in full respect for my modernist leanings, he answered them all even before I could articulate them. It is a fascinating story of popular faith, he began, and its complex relation to institutional religion, politics, family, social class and business. “By this project,” he said, “I mean to affirm the strong faith of the simple folk who have found solace and comfort in the image of the ‘Apung Mamacalulu’ (Lord of Mercy) that is kept in the shrine.”

To my surprise, our tiny donation to this project was soon dwarfed a million times over by the contributions that poured in from everywhere after the fund was launched. A wealthy person at one point offered to provide the entire amount needed to pay the banks to which the land had been mortgaged, but his gesture was politely turned down. For it didn’t take long for the parish to realize that more important than actually redeeming the property on which the shrine squatted was the strong current of faith and solidarity that the shared effort to raise funds had awakened.

For a long time, the Church had refused to authorize the celebration of the Mass in this chapel on the ground that it was being denied full authority over the administration of the shrine. So long as one family was claiming it as private property, with prerogative to decide what kind of activities to permit inside it, the Church authorities refused to have anything to do with it. However, this did not deter the devotees of the “Apu” from flocking to the shrine. In time, the whole place acquired the potent imagery of a church that belonged to the poor and the marginalized. Ironically, in trying to prevent the use of the icon as a magnet for the commercialization of folk devotion, the Church had risked being perceived as an institution that stood aloof from the spiritual needs of humble folk.

All this changed when Archbishop Paciano Aniceto authorized the return of the Mass to the shrine of “Apung Mamacalulu” last year, after the owners agreed to donate to the Church a portion of the land on which the shrine stood. The rest of the property has long been foreclosed by the banks, and it has now fallen on the parish to buy it back from the banks. These events, previously narrated only as oral history, are now recounted in a recently published book, “Apung Mamacalulu (The Sto. Entierro of Angeles City).” This beautiful book documents the intriguing saga of the religious icon that became a central figure in the religious, political and social life of a town, and spawned one of the most fervent devotional cultures of our time.

I was totally unaware of the charisma surrounding the icon of the dead Christ until I went on an ethnographic visit to the shrine that houses the “Apu.” The place is in Barangay Lourdes Sur, in the old section of Angeles, just a stone’s throw away from the imposing Cathedral of the Holy Rosary. One would not see it from the main street where once upon a time the town’s important families built their houses, but every pedicab driver knows where it is. One walks into an ordinary-looking neighborhood that becomes, especially on Fridays, a crowded corridor of peddlers’ tents leading to the door of a modern chapel. I have never seen a more incongruous mingling of the sacred and the profane.

A priest is delivering a homily as I walk in. His voice is amplified by a powerful sound system that barely succeeds in drowning out the noise from the market outside. A long queue quietly snakes along the pews on the right side of the chapel, leading to the back of the altar where the image of the “Apu” lies. I fall in line and find myself following a trail suffused with symbolisms of suffering and hope.

One approaches the large glass case that contains the “Apu” by stepping up to a narrow platform that supports it. A hole in the glass allows one to touch or rub a handkerchief on the feet of the image, say a quick prayer or wish, and leave some money or flowers. Many devotees linger around the “Apu,” seeking out the area by the head. There, between fits of sobbing, they pour out their problems and pleas for relief in whispered confession. Then they fall silent, as if in unmediated communication with a physically present God. So strong is their faith.

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