The ivory probe, then what?

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I AM not a great fan of religious images because to me, they all look alike and so dolorous. Ever seen a smiling and happy saint? Noticed too that they all have the same defined features, which are not those of a Pinoy? Fortunately for us, the image of Blessed Pedro Calungsod bears Asian features.

Whether the official statue of the Blessed Pedro Calungsod, who in a month will be conferred the sainthood, will be carved out of ivory remains to be seen. I doubt if the Catholic Church in Cebu will have it made of ivory in the light of the implication of a top-ranking Cebuano monsignor in the ivory trade.

Poor saints, they were persecuted when they were alive and still persecuted in their pedestals as religious icons. The Sto. Niño de Cebu, innocent as he is, is not spared.


A report in the October 2012 issue of the National Geographic magazine quotes Msgr. Cristobal Garcia, who collects ivory icons of the Sto. Nino, on how one can smuggle ivory into the Philippines. He was interviewed for the article that looked into the killings of elephants in Africa for their ivory tusks.

The National Geographic report implied that the church could be indirectly involved in the elephant slaughter because it is one of the end users of ivory, which is used to make religious icons. Ivory is preferred to wood because of its natural smoothness, beauty and durability.

So now, following the National Geographic report, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has set afoot an investigation on how the Catholic Church has acquired its ivory icons.

Likewise, Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma, who heads the Catholic Bishop Conference of the Philippines, has directed Msgr. Julito Cortes of the cultural heritage commission to do an inventory of the ivory artifacts and check the year of their acquisition.

I am not clear if the scope of the DENR investigation and the church inventory are going to be limited to Cebu or cover the entire country. The DENR has admitted that it has no equipment available here that could date the ivory.

Many of the ivory statues the Church has have been there long before the lola of Noy Kulas was born. They don’t have papers. If the ones acquired after 1989, when the ban on the ivory sale took effect, are found to be made of smuggled ivory, what then? Who in the church hierarchy will be made accountable for that? The Pope? Pedro Calungsod?

It’s going to be a tedious investigation. By the time the DENR people wrap it up, they would have gotten themselves well-acquainted with the saints and their feasts, and earned themselves a million indulgences in heaven.

In the Philippines, ivory fetched a price of P1,000 per kilo in 2009, according to a report in the Cebu Daily News.

The steep buying price explained the mysterious decapitations of saints or the severances of their hands. Three years back, several Catholic parishes in Cebu reported one after another the gruesome crime committed against their religious statues.

Ever wondered why the vandals or robbers get only the head and the hands? Because those are the only parts of many icons that are made of ivory. The body, which is covered in somber clothing, is made of wood or resin. It is the head or the hand of the santo the faithful kiss.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on September 27, 2012.


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