By: Manila Reviews

At this holy time of the year, let us share this message from Msgr. Jose Clemente Ignacio, the Parish Priest of Quiapo.

1. In my experience as a pastor, how do I look at the genuineness in the faith expressions of the devotees of the Black Nazarene?

2. What about the criticism that the devotion to the Nazareno is prone to abuse because it seems to border on idolatry?

3. What have been the abuses/excesses in the devotion? If there are, how do I, as a pastor, correct them? How could the theologians and future ministers be able to help?

4. What can I say about the judgment that the devotion to the Black Nazarene is a wrong devotion because the Nazareno is a symbol of despair and suffering and that we should use symbols that promotes hope for the Filipino?

I grew up in a world different from the world of the regular devotees of Quiapo church. My mother is a devotee of the Black Nazarene. I have a vivid memory of an event when I was a child. My mother brought me to the Quiapo Church and she processed to the altar on bended knees. I kept telling her: “Oh mom, please, stand up! You’re such a disgrace! People are looking at us! Please, stop this nonsense!” Until we reached the altar, I kept telling her that what she was doing embarrassed me.

I did not have a heart for the devotion then. I could not understand what she was doing. All my formation both in school and in the seminary was within the confining walls of the religious run University. I came to realize, it was not the world of many Filipinos.


I took time trying to understand Popular Religiosity. Popular Religiosity, as it was understood then – had to do with practices considered ‘outside’ of the normally acceptable and universally approved liturgical practices. They were not according to norm and were not given its place in the approved cultic celebrations of our Church. It was not among the more topics our professors gave much attention to. The conception was that there were many elements that needed purification.

I started with a concept that these practices did not fit the theological framework of our prayers and liturgies. I found myself becoming wary of popular religious practices. Some of them were judged to be superstitious and even fanatical. The better way of expressing one’s piety was through retreats and recollections. Folk Religiosity was of a ‘lower level’ of faith expression.

But there were some professors who did encourage us to open the doors to the study of popular religiosity. They said it was a great potential for evangelization and the task ahead was to understand and embrace them once more and bring these practices back into the approved cultic life of the Church.


This was the reason I made a paper, as a student of theology, about the Antipolo Pilgrimage Experience. My research on the Pilgrimage Experience helped me a lot to understand what many Catholic Filipinos experience during processions, religious festivals and the Holy Week. Two socio-anthropologists Turner and Turner helped me with their vast research on Pilgrimages. They even helped me later on to understand the El Shaddai phenomenon and even the EDSA Revolution. It gave me a framework of understanding our people’s way of expressing their faith.

Victor and Edith Turner see pilgrimages as following a basic framework known as the Rite of Passage. This was borrowed from Arnold Van Gennep. The Right of Passage is the paradigm for our understanding of the Translacion Procession and the Devotional Practices to the Black Nazarene. The key is the idea of ‘liminality’. Limen is the threshold of a physiological or psychological response. It is at this point that the pilgrims experience distance and release from mundane structures and institutions where they are placed in their assigned roles and statuses in society. During the “limen”, they reach the threshold in and out of time. It is here they receive a “liberation”, undergoing a direct experience of the sacred, either in the material aspect of miraculous healing or in the immaterial aspect of inward transformation of spirit and personality.

In the history of Christianity, the Turners observed that as monasticism assumed much of the liminal experience, ordinary lay peasants and citizens generated their own liminality which was the pilgrimage experience. All the sites they went to have one thing in common – they were believed to be places where miracles once happened, still happen and may happen.

This is why those who experienced pilgrimages keep coming back. It is a wonderful experience to be cleansed, to be one with the peoples, to get in touch with the divine, to experience “heaven” even for a short glimpse – a kind of a ‘transfiguration. Devotees as well as pilgrims keep coming back to those sacred places or events.

The paradigm underlying Christian pilgrimages is the Via Crucis. It is the Via Crucis, with all its purgatorial elements which serves as the form of penance and prayer. While the Monastics made interior salvific journeys, the lay people, who were in the world, exteriorized theirs in pilgrimages. It was their great quasi-liminal experience, an exteriorized mysticism according to the Turners.

The secret about Christian pilgrimages is the inward movement of the heart, an intensifying experience of one’s faith and religion. It is a voluntary acceptance to undergo the paschal mystery of Christ, being initiated into the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. In being submerged into the paschal mystery of Christ, heaven opens up, symbols become meaningful, awe, reverence and silence manifests one’s disposition to receive the imprint of the sacred in his/her life. Bonding, cleansing, healing, and joy are the fruits of coming home to the Life of the Trinity.


There was one Jesuit Scholastic who helped me understand the concepts which the Turners elucidated. He was a “devotee of sorts” and would walk going to Antipolo barefoot starting from Quiapo church on the eve of May 1. He had many other devotions and practices, which he introduced to me. He collected and shared stories about the miracles experienced through statues. He collected prayer books, novenas, and cloths that touched sacred objects or places. He even had precious relics of the saints.

I would sometimes borrow these relics of the saints from him when I was not able to study for an oral exam and would put the relic in my pocket asking for the intercession of the saint. Whether I was practicing superstition or simple faith – the fact is – I was never turned down in my request and got passing grades because of this. This Jesuit who is now a priest has been a successful pastor of souls to many simple people. He continues to be a prayerful person in a very Filipino way. He is Fr. Benny de Guzman, SJ who has been helping us a lot in Quiapo and has been repeatedly requested by the parishioners and devotees for talks and recollections.

Quiapo church has been a witness to several practices of Popular Piety. They have become part of the Devotion to the Black Nazarene. Among them are the following: The Pahalik (kissing of the statues), Pasindi (lighting of multi-coloured candles outside the church), Padasal (prayers from the Mandarasals or the Priests), Pabihis (the changing of the garments of the Black Nazarene), Pabendision (sprinkling of Holy Water after mass or the kissing of the hands of the priests), Pahawak (touching of the statues or the garments of the Black Nazarene), Pamisa (Mass Offerings), Pagnonobena (Novena prayers or masses), Pagpasan (Carrying of the wood of the carroza or the rope attached to it), Pagyayapak (walking barefoot during processions), Paglalakad ng Paluhod (processing to the altar on bended knees).

There are also many other practices I discovered like; asking the priests to bless oil or bottled water to bring home to the sick; asking for dried sampaguitas (white flowers) offered in the church to bring home; cutting up the vestments of the Black Nazarene as well as the rope used during the procession as a relic; wiping sacred images with towels; selling of crucifixes and handkerchiefs with the face of the Black Nazarene; and the bringing of the Hands of the Black Nazarene to the sick. I have been asking myself questions: Are these practices good or bad? Should they be allowed to continue or should they be stopped? Some are saying it is bordering on fanaticism and the people should simply stick to the approved liturgies namely the Eucharist and the other celebrations found in the Missal. Some say they are remnants of the animistic faith of the past which the Church has not yet totally ‘Christianized’.


The priests of Quiapo discuss these matters often. The media have a lot of criticisms for the pastors of Quiapo church. They echo what some people say that the practices are superstitious, fanatical and even idolatrous. I don’t know, but after being submerged in the life of the ordinary devotees, the pastors of Quiapo are one in the feeling that they have been humbled in their priesthood the more they get to understand and encounter the faith of the simple people. From where ordinary parishioners stand, one can feel the intensity and sincerity of their devotion. One priest said, “Maybe, the theological community has not yet fully understood the soul and spirituality of Filipinos. Maybe, our theological paradigms are too western which is why we easily condemn the piety of our devotees”. One priest even said: “Our theologies might be an elitist theology which we might need to evaluate.”

As one of the pastors of Quiapo Church, I have always faced issues that had to do with the devotion to the Black Nazarene. For example, one of the first issues presented to me was: Should I tolerate the ‘Mandarasals’ (persons sought out for prayers) at the back of the church or not? Apparently, they are ‘bothering’ some people, because these Mandarasals look like they are trying to earn a living using prayers.

I invited the Mandarasals one day to my office. I asked them, “When did this tradition begin?” They could not remember; all they knew was that their great, great grandparents were Mandarasals. One of them even said, “… It might date back to the Spanish Occupation…” This practice of praying for others, institutionalized in the church of Quiapo, has been passed on from generation to generation.

I learned that the Mandarasals were very serious about their praying. They devote hours and hours of praying in front of their altars in their homes or capilletas for the intentions of their clients. Even priests sometimes ask them for prayers. When they were sharing their lives to me, I saw that behind their ‘ornamental displaying’ at the rear of the Church, was a witnessing to an age old teaching of the Church regarding intercessory praying. I could not go against the good I saw when I interviewed them.

So, I said to them – “I won’t take you out of the church but on the following conditions: 1) Do not charge payment and make this a living. Don’t commit simony. 2) Don’t destroy the beautiful tradition of their ancestors of praying for others. 3) During the mass, they should cease, for the mass is the best prayer. 4) Don’t allow fake Madarasals to enter. If you do not observe these conditions, you will be sent out.” I allowed them to receive donations from the people because the laborer is worth his keep… and lay people have a right to receive donations for their services.

Later on, I invited them to attend formation seminars, bible studies and be members of our organizations. I also instructed our formation ministry to help them acquire basic counseling skills since people who ask prayers from them are people with problems. I also saw – and I think this is understandable – that we priests in the confessional are not answering some counseling needs of the many people coming to church; the Mandarasals, however, are somehow filling up the lack.

Other practices that became an issue which our parochial vicar had to attend to was the selling of dried sampaguitas offered in the church as well as oils used for cleaning the Black Nazarene. Some took advantage of this and made money out of it. The parochial vicar controlled this by giving them for free. He did not stop the practice but simply corrected the abuses.

The point I wish to emphasize is that people want something to bring home, a rosary, a handkerchief or dried sampaguitas from the shrine. They believe that the shrine is a holy place and that objects that touched that holy place – whether sacred statues or ornaments in the church – would somehow bring the presence of the divine into their homes. I guess that is what we also do in the church – relics, whether first class, second class or third class, have been part of the practice of piety of the Church. They have been a source of spiritual favors and a strengthening of the life of the faithful. If poor people cannot have access to those rare relics of the Church, why can’t our poor people create relics from those that they experienced as holy and bring these home with them to fulfill their spiritual needs?


I have been asked, why do you allow the people to touch the statue? Isn’t it bordering on idolatry? I guess, the view behind that question isn’t really Filipino. Filipinos are a people of ‘the concrete’. Our expressions are expressed ‘in the concrete’. This is an Asian trait. ‘Christ was Asian!’ according to one of the statements affirmed by the International Gathering of Asian Shrine Rectors. That is why, in the bible, Christ touched the sick, the children and sinners. The crowds too were pushing on Jesus, wanting to touch Him. Remember the woman who was sick with a hemorrhage. When Jesus asked who touched him, the disciples complained that there were many people touching him and yet he asked who touched him? The woman believed that if she could only touch Jesus, then she would be healed and true enough, her faith healed her. It is a Filipino trait to want to wipe, touch, kiss, or embrace sacred objects.

We Filipinos believe in the presence of the Divine in sacred objects and places. The people want to be connected to the Divine, whether it be through the lining up for the Pahalik; or holding on to the vestments of the Nazareno after the Pabihis; or to be able to touch the rope and put it on their shoulders – this is a way of expressing one’s faith. It is an expression of their devotion. We all know we don’t worship statues. We worship God and if these statues would ‘bridge us to God’, then we want to connect with God using these statues. Kissing or holding on to the statues is not worshipping statues. It is connecting to the divine, to touch and be touched by heaven itself. When I scolded a child for joining the procession and touching the statue, I asked her: “Why did you squeeze through the crowd and touch the statue – do you not know that is dangerous!” The child answered, “Because if I touch the statue, I will be blessed and Jesus will hear my prayers!”

People go to Quiapo church because they believe that God’s presence and power is more intense in this Shrine. A theologian once said: “Shrines are places here on earth where the veil that separates heaven and earth has a tear.” I guess our task is not to destroy popular practices, but to understand them and re-focus them so that a more sound faith may develop. One of our problems in Quiapo is how to multiply the possibilities where people could get in touch with the Divine in a way that would not cause harm to them or their faith. We also need to deepen the devotees’ encounter with our Lord. We have just tried to begin regular Holy Hours and Benedictions and reviewed our liturgies and prayers to reach the soul of our devotees. We have increased the visits of our pilgrim images to parishes and dioceses all over the Philippines. We have begun a liturgy for the changing of the garments of the Black Nazarene which culminates in the devotees touching the used garment of the Black Nazarene. We have also started healing services every Thursday before First Fridays where priests are invited to lay their hands on the devotees.


If there are many things to do in Quiapo, it is not to destroy what the people have already been practicing but to improve, and nurture the faith of the people. There are “many levels in the faith” of our devotees (borrowing from St. Paul). Some are young, some are more mature. What is needed is for the devotees to understand their faith a little bit more, and put things in their right perspective. With proper formation, we hope the devotees could experience more the love of God in their lives and realize their faith in Jesus. When Fr. Venus and I came to Quiapo, we saw that through the decades, the memberships in the organizations, as well as devotees coming to the church, have grown faster than the institution could cope with. So, under the advice of His Eminence Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, we have taken baby steps, reorganizing the parish and its ministries, doubling the personnel and prioritizing formation, liturgy and devotions, in order to bring about a better and more mature corps of servant volunteers, who would have an influence on the people who come and go to Quiapo and join the processions. We are also experimenting on ways in our recollection giving with our Mamamasans to bring them closer to God. I was struck when Fr. Jack Padua used the rope and the image of the Black Nazarene during his recollections and it became very meaningful to the devotees.

Abuses, superstition or occultism in the devotion? Surely, there are things that still need to be purified in our expressions. Human as they are, our expressions need to achieve their perfection. Some go wayward like people who claim they are God the Father or God the Son or when objects are used to enslave people and not free them, such as the anting antings or the black candles sold outside of Quiapo church to bring misfortune upon people who they believed have wronged them. The Manghuhulas (fortune tellers) outside the Church have been a familiar site. These are the things that need purification.

Whether some expressions are delusional or devotional, it is the heart, the interior of the person, that will decide if an expression is right or wrong. Remember the woman whom Jesus defended, who kissed his feet and washed them with her tears? It is only God who could see the hearts of peoples. I hope, before we make easy judgments about devotions, we must first understand why people express their faith the way they do. Those who could judge better about these acts of religiosity are those who understand fully the heart of the devotee. I admit, I am still trying to understand the heart and the life of the devotee. I am still far from being considered a true devotee.

Regarding abuses, the abuses I was able to identify comes not from the expression of the people’s faith or devotion, but from those who manipulate the devotion and use it for their own ends, either to create influence or make money out of it. Such are those who solicit for their own ends or manipulate others who are in desperate situations like predicting your future or selling abortion pills. These are the abuses which we priests are now fighting in Quiapo and the priests as well as some lay servants have received their share of threats.

Regarding the lack of doctrinal understanding of the people’s faith, it is not the people’s fault. The fault lies in the people’s lack of opportunities for formation. One time, a group of pilgrims came to Quiapo early morning. They came from Laguna but went on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady in Agoo, La Union. They were so tired and hungry when they passed by Quiapo Church on their way home to Laguna. The guards, dismissing them as ‘spiritistas’ and practicing the occult, did not entertain them. When I saw them, I asked the guards to let them in and I invited them to my office. When they entered my office, they made the rounds of touching all the statues of saints with reverence and prayer. Then I asked them to be seated and eat what I was able to get from our fridge and the pantry. Then, I asked them who they were and what they did. They said they belonged to a community of praying persons. They had on their T-shirts the triangular symbol of the Trinity and some latin words inscribed around it with the familiar symbol IHS. They shared with me their lives and the exorcisms they did. They took care of two chapel communities and the priest in their parish recognized one already. Their growing charism had been felt in their community but the priest was still cautious due to their need for proper formation.

They presented some questions about the faith and I had to answer and explain certain things. I even tried to explain some Latin words familiar to them but whose meaning they didn’t know. Their intentions were good and they really prayed and wanted evil to go away in the lives of their parishioners. What saddened me was the lack of opportunities for their ‘shepherding’. They needed someone to guide them but the priests in the provinces are so busy and burdened with the needs of their vast jurisdiction. These people go on regular retreats up in the mountains, and their spirituality is characterized by openness and the readiness to listen. They are often judged to be ‘spiritistas’ in the negative sense and that they practice the occult. I believe, with proper formation and redirection, their ministry and symbols could be a greater contribution to the Church.

Many devotees in Quiapo and those who appear once a year during the processions are in the same state – that is, they need to be given opportunities to be formed in the faith. Slowly, we have tried to reach out to more Mamamasans but we are only ‘scratching the surface’. Our overnight vigils before January 9 is an attempt to reach out to more devotees hoping to bring the good news and share the teachings of the Church with them. We have begun a tabloid newspaper, a website, live streaming for OFW and the sick, and TV Masses. We haven’t reached even a tenth of them.

We don’t even know if these catechisms speak to their practices of piety during those ‘cathartic moments’ of the procession. How to put reason in their faith, and do it in such a way that we do not destroy the spontaneity of their faith-expressions, much less, Westernize them with a theology that is alien to their Filipino spirit – I don’t know. Yes, Faith and Reason must go together, but what if our frameworks are not Filipino Friendly? Popular Piety involves the whole person, not just the mind. It is not a head thing. It might be a mystical experience which we do not understand. We only need to respect them. I really don’t know if we could combine reason in pious practices. Some of the devotees felt bad when I stopped the procession and changed the carroza because the carroza was causing accidents. For the devotees, they were ready for it and the accidents were part of their sacrifice. I guess, we shall leave the answers to the theological communities. We are simply pastors out in the field. Their reflections will greatly be of assistance to us.


Interestingly, the Protestants have begun analyzing the devotion to the Black Nazarene. They identified three elements why Catholics devoted to the Black Nazarene are growing. They cited three reasons: 1) Miracles and Healing. 2) The identification of the Filipinos with the Sufferings of Jesus Christ and 3) The Panata Commitment. I agree with the reasons stated here. I myself had witnessed numerous miracles which Our Lord of the Black Nazarene has done to peoples.

So, why are devotees growing? Fr. Tony de Castro, SJ was right when he said, “It is the Black Nazarene!” I would like to express what the disciples of Jesus said when he appeared to them after the resurrection: “It is the Lord!” It is the Lord who is alive and present in the Shrine at Quiapo! It is the Lord who does all these miracles and answers the prayers of those who come to Him! It is the Lord who has that special affection to the poor and the weak who come to Him in Quiapo! It is the Lord who appears to people in dreams or calls them through events in their lives so that He could embrace them and save them! It is the Lord who loves and builds this Church in Quiapo! This is the experience of the devotees and we could understand why the people come to Quiapo and why some are even willing to risk their lives in such a dangerous procession.

What about the objection that the devotion to the Black Nazarene is a wrong because it emphasizes the sufferings of Christ? On the contrary, if we look at the image more carefully, it shows Christ standing up after the fall. When I had a replica of the image of the Black Nazarene done by a sculptor, he portrayed a Christ who was so burdened by the cross, gasping, and had his shoulders down. The people reacted. They said, “The shoulders aren’t straight! Christ does not give up in carrying His cross! He stood up after each fall!” So, the image went back to the drawing board. The Black Nazarene for the true devotee is really a symbol of hope and resilience. I guess it says something about the Filipino and his faith.


I wish to end this talk on the Nazarene Devotion with the quote from Pope Benedict encouraging the seminarians to consider Popular Piety. Recently, Pope Benedict XVI, in a letter to Seminarians said:

“I urge you to retain an appreciation for popular piety, which is different in every culture yet always remains very similar, for the human heart is ultimately one and the same. Certainly, popular piety tends towards the irrational, and can at times be somewhat superficial. Yet it would be quite wrong to dismiss it. Through that piety, the faith has entered human hearts and become part of the common patrimony of sentiments and customs, shaping the life and emotions of the community. Popular piety is thus one of the Church’s great treasures. The faith that has taken flesh and blood. Certain popular piety always needs to be purified and refocused yet it is worthy of our love and it truly makes us into the ‘People of God” (From the Vatican, 18 October 2010, Feast of St. Luke the Evangelist.)

The Papal Nuncio and the Priests of the Nunciature came to Quiapo the day after the January 9, 2011 procession. They requested to visit the statue of the Black Nazarene. I brought them to the quiet chamber where the image was kept. When the Nuncio, His Excellency Most Rev. Edward Joseph Adams, DD and the priests entered, they were silent in prayer. Then, the Nuncio knelt and kissed the hand of the Black Nazarene. So did his priests. After this, he took his rosary from his pocket and wiped it at the hands of Our Lord of the Black Nazarene. Two devotions met, the devotions to our Blessed Mother and to Our Lord of the Black Nazarene! I then realized what great treasures we Filipinos have – our devotions – and among them is this Devotion to the Black Nazarene!


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