The Black Nazarene, the Pope, and the crowd

The Catholic Church has had such a long history of dealing with spontaneous crowds that one cannot think of any other institution on earth that has had more experience and success in taming the explosive discharge associated with crowds. It is part of its heritage. In welcoming and making room for everyone, Catholicism has had to continually confront its primal challenge: how to manage the crowd.

Its methods, honed through the centuries, offer lessons that we may well keep in mind as we brace ourselves for two events in January that will be dominated by the specter of the crowd—the annual procession of the Black Nazarene of Quiapo and the forthcoming visit of the popular Pope Francis.

No deployment of police forces, no matter how huge, can possibly control a crowd that is blinded by the urge to go as near as possible to where they believe the sacred is, and hopefully to touch it. Keeping order under such circumstances has always been a nightmare. To that, one must now add the complications posed by the faddish quest to take “selfies” with anything or anybody of significance in the effort to preserve a fleeting moment. Selfies, reportedly, have considerably slowed down the movement of devotees lining up to kiss or wipe the feet of the Nazarene inside the Quiapo Church.

Every year, the spectacular Quiapo procession has always resulted in people being hurt or killed whenever the crowd breaks out into occasional stampedes. The organizers of the procession have learned over the years to prepare for such contingencies in order to minimize accidents. One important measure they have adopted is to prevent people who are reeking of alcohol from joining the procession. This year, the city government decided to impose a liquor ban for the duration of the feast itself.

This year’s “traslacion” or procession of the icon of the Black Nazarene through the narrow streets of Manila offers a perfect chance to rehearse those measures that are needed to maintain crowd discipline during the historic papal visit. The crowds will surely be several times bigger.

Unlike other visiting heads of state whose public appearances tend to be confined to indoor events, such as when a university confers an honorary degree on a foreign dignitary, Francis will be celebrating the Mass in open air before a crowd of several million devotees. I understand he will then mount a vehicle to reach out to the people in the crowd, the way he does at St. Peter’s Square in Rome.

Having seen how the statue of the Nazarene is mobbed as it makes its way through the surging crowd, I cannot imagine how devotees will react when the living Pope himself goes out to bless the crowd. It would be a sight to behold. But, how does one control the collective effervescence emanating from a fired-up crowd?

If we were to rely purely on our experience with crowds whose sense of entitlement grows with distress and the fear of being left out, we should worry endlessly for Francis’ safety. Such crowds we have seen recently. They were the looting bands in Tacloban that spontaneously emerged from the chaos and desolation left by Supertyphoon “Yolanda.”

We caught a glimpse of the same crowd in the aftermath of a big fire that razed many homes in Manila, when the victims spontaneously seized relief goods awaiting distribution, unable to wait for someone to create a line and ensure equitable sharing of the goods. Lately, we saw it, too, at the Cebu Pacific check-in counters, when some irate passengers, reacting to the fiasco of delayed and canceled flights, quickly metamorphosed into a righteous mob and insisted on occupying a plane they knew wasn’t meant for them.

In every instance, self-pity turns into grievance, and then to a sense of entitlement that builds up and finds discharge in destructive crowd behavior. No one probably has observed the sociology of crowds more keenly than the writer Elias Canetti. What he says about the Catholic Church and the crowd is fascinating, and gives us enough reason to hope that Pope Francis will be safe in a crowd of worshippers. “There has never been a state on earth capable of defending itself in so many ways against the crowd. Compared with the Church all other rulers seem poor amateurs.”

There is something, says Canetti, about the whole tradition of the Catholic Church that insulates the institution from the unpredictable discharge of the crowd. First is the deliberation that is inherent in every aspect of Church rituals—all of it appears “like an infinite dilution of lament.” There is a reason and meaning to every measured movement, virtually allowing no room for spontaneous experiences. The communion is perhaps the best example of the discipline to be found in Catholic rituals. Filipinos patiently waited for their turn at communion long before they learned the modern practice of queuing in everyday life.

All it takes for a crowd to become a menacing mob is for one or two individuals to start mobilizing collective grievances and directing a crowd toward some remedial action. The Church prevents this from happening, observes Canetti, by discouraging communication between worshippers. “They do not preach to each other; the word of the simple believer has no sanctity whatsoever.”

One cannot say to what extent that is still true in the Church today. The quest for participation pervades all institutions. The Church is challenged to nurture the impulse that moves the laity to play an active role in the administration of Church life. More than traditional obedience to authority, it is this that sustains enduring faith.

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