Miracle at the Apu Shrine

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By Robby Tantingco

Peanut Gallery

Monday, April 9, 2012


SHORTLY after midnight last Holy Wednesday, Fr. Enrique Luzung welcomed the first magdarame (penitents) to the Apung Mamacalulu shrine in Angeles City.

The sight of a Catholic priest openly mingling with mamalaspas (flagellants), mamusan krus (cross bearers) and magsalibatbat (crawlers) came as a surprise, because the Church has always frowned upon Christians who mutilate their bodies to achieve the redemption that is already available through confession.

Instead of criticizing them and keeping them out of the fold, as what most priests do, the newly installed rector of the Apu shrine got them into the church patio, conversed with them, read the Bible to them and prayed over them.

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And as they stepped out of the patio to start their bloody procession, Fr. Luzung sang these words of Christ to them, “Whosoever wants to be my disciple, go and take up your cross and follow me.”

For his part, Bishop Pablo David put up a puni or pabasa at the shrine entrance where a giant screen flashed the pasyon text, page by page, for all to follow and understand. It’s a stunning acknowledgment of the pasyon as a legitimate vessel of the Word of God, despite its many apocryphal anecdotes.

Bishop David regularly visited the puni during its run last week to sing along with the chanters, as well as to read passages from the Scripture as his subtle way of weaning them away from the folk Bible to the real Bible.

Come to think of it, if the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) really wants to end all these bloody and superstitious Holy Week practices, it should go beyond issuing pastoral letters and do what Christ himself would have done if He were alive today: embrace the flagellants and then whisper to their ears, “Go, and sin no more.”

After all, the reason these penitents resort to extreme ways to win Christ’s forgiveness is the failure of the Church itself to make the sacrament of confession a viable option.

It was also the failure of Spanish missionaries to make the Bible accessible to our ancestors for 300 years that forced them to resort to writing their own version of it—the pasyon. And because it was prohibited to perform it inside the church, they built their own makeshift churches—the puni.

Instead of shutting the puni, the pasyon and the magdarame out, our priests should bow their heads in shame when the crowds going to these alternative churches and folk rituals outnumber the faithful flocking to the official parish activities on Holy Week.

Or, they can follow the example of Bishop David and Fr. Luzung.

I am sure that if the Church takes time to really reach out to these penitents and pasyon chanters, like what Bishop David and Fr. Luzung did last week and hopefully do again next year, we will see them rethinking their practices and who knows, they might even start returning to the fold.

For now, it’s better to not condemn them and to just let them be, as they continue making their slow journey back to the Church.

Ben Enaje, the man who gets crucified every year at San Pedro Cutud, told me last week, on the eve of his crucifixion, that when he and the Archbishop met sometime ago, Apu Ceto only admonished him to bring his annual practice to a close and then do it no more. “But he did not order me to stop it abruptly,” Enaje told me.

Fr. Luzung, for his part, said, “I started having respect for penitents after I saw one in deep prayer. I’ve not seen Catholics pray as intensely as that flagellant prayed.”

And Bishop David, who believes that pasyon chanting has pre-Hispanic roots, said, “The Spaniards didn’t bring God to us. They found God already among us.” If the example of Bishop Ambo and Fr. Luzung catches fire and eventually convinces the Church to rethink its position about Holy Week penitents, then do not forget that it started, quite appropriately, in the Apu shrine, the ground zero of folk religiosity, where penitents can find their best sanctuary not only because it houses the symbol of their most intimate kinship with the suffering Jesus (Apung Mamacalulu), but also because it was the only place of worship in the world that would not reject them: it was not owned by the Church (the Dayrits owned it).

It’s a long story, but I will just say that you can’t find a chapel with a more controversial origin, or a more scandalous environment, than the Apu shrine.

The fact that it survived in the middle of the city’s most chaotic mercantile district is a miracle in itself. The fact that it passed on from the hands of its private owners to the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese under the most unusual circumstances — that’s also a miracle.

And the fact that the Archdiocese has declared this center of folk religiosity a shrine, therefore legitimizing the pilgrimages and recognizing finally the devotees’ faith as genuine—that’s a miracle, too.

And now, with the unprecedented initiative of Bishop Ambo and Fr. Luzung to catechize penitents, which can potentially revolutionize the way the Catholic Church deals with folk religiosity, the Apu shrine may produce yet another miracle.

Published in the Sun.Star Pampanga newspaper on April 10, 2012.

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