Penitentes take centerstage anew in Leyte Holy Week rituals

A file photo shows members of the all-men religious group Palo Penitentes joining the annual Holy Week celebration in Palo, Leyte. (File/Photo courtesy of Sidney Snoeck)
A file photo shows members of the all-men religious group Palo Penitentes joining the annual Holy Week celebration in Palo, Leyte. (File/Photo courtesy of Sidney Snoeck)

SINCE he was 20 years old, Fidelino Josol has continued to offer personal sacrifices every Lent.

Now at 56 and experiencing medical problems, Josol said he is not yet hanging his hood and robe as a senior member of Penitentes, an all-male confraternity of Catholic devotees in Palo town in Leyte province of the central Philippines.

During the Holy Week, Josol and fellow Penitentes worked with other civic and religious organizations of the Archdiocese of Palo in extending “moral, logistical, and manpower support” to the re-enactment of the Passion of Christ.

The reenactment also turned into a regular religious tourism attraction in the town square, attracting thousands of Catholic faithful across the Eastern Visayas region.

“I am doing this for the atonement of all my sins,” Josol said.

Asked if he would emerge a new man after the Holy Week rites, Josol, a public school teacher by profession, said: “I hope and pray.”

Despite the summer heat, Josol would walk barefooted, but in full and colorful regalia, with rosary beads worn around his neck and woolen cord tied around his waist.

On Wednesday afternoon, March 27, 2024, Josol assisted the 20 new members in their solemn investiture at the Palo Metropolitan Cathedral, which Pope Francis also visited in January 2015 two years after super typhoon Yolanda leveled the town.

Like other members, he became active during the weeklong Lenten celebration of Holy Week which usually starts on Palm Sunday and lasts until Easter Sunday.

He joined the mass of the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday, the “Siete Palabras (The Seven Last Words)” and veneration of the Cross on Good Friday and the Stations of the Cross on Black Saturday.

In the Good Friday evening procession, the Penitentes also acted as marshals and pallbearers of the different religious statues and icons.

Instead of doing self-flagellation during Lent as a sign of penance, Josol and his company would help the priests during religious processions and rituals and solicit donations for the parish during the Holy Week celebration.

For a more meaningful Good Friday, which centers on the Catholic tradition of “puasa” or fast and abstinence, the Penitentes will also concoct the recipe unique only to Palo, the “molabola (milled sticky rice fashioned into tiny balls and cooked in coconut milk and sugar)," for their daylong meal, according to a report from Catholic news site UCA News.

While forming the tiny sticky concoction, they would silently recite the “Ave Maria,” simultaneously with it as a sacrifice and self-mortification.

“Perhaps this is also an allusion to Saint Benedict’s “Ora et Labora (prayer and labor),” said Josol.

Spanish origin

The Penitentes take their root from the Penitentes or Nazareños, the men and women wearing cone-shaped hoods that cover their faces while carrying religious statues and icons as a form of sacrifice during the Holy Week processions which dated back to the 15th-century rituals in Santa of Andalusia, Spain.

In 1894, Spanish Franciscan priest Pantaleon de la Fuente, who was assigned in Palo town from 1887 to 1898, introduced the Penitentes to add drama to the Holy Week observance.

“The Penitentes seek for forgiveness, atonement, reparation, and penance for the sins they may have committed through sacrifice and self-mortification in the form of sincere and genuine services rendered to the church, especially during Lenten Season,” Josol said.

The name is derived from the Latin “Paenitentia/ae” and Spanish “Los Penitentes,” or sinners or wrongdoers who feel regret or sorrow for misdeeds, UCA News reported.

Monsignor Gilbert Urbina, vicar general of Palo Archdiocese, earlier said that “the practice of doing public penitential practices during Lent and Holy Week in Palo dates back to the early years of the evangelization of this town in the late 16th century, as attested to by Jesuit historian, Fr. Pedro Chirino; obviously, it has continued for centuries until today.”

“As an organized and officially recognized parish organization, the Penitentes of Palo portray the penitential mood of the parish and embody the penitential acts of all the parishioners. Each one does not only make a sacrifice for his own sake but like the Lord himself vicariously suffers for others,” Urbina wrote during the March 28, 2021 renewal of promises of the Penitentes of Palo at the town’s cathedral, amid the backdrop of the coronavirus disease pandemic.

“And so they remind others in the parish (and all the baptized elsewhere) that we have to make sacrifices for the sake of our families, communities, our country, and the world - in short, for others,” he added.

With their medieval robe design, similar to the Penitentes of southern Spain, the Penitentes in Palo also covered their faces.

According to Urbina, the covering of their faces “remind us of the anonymity when it comes to praying and sacrificing for others; and the inconvenience of wearing the long and heavy robes in a humid country like the Philippines underlines the sacrificial character of the activity.”


Critics of the costume

Despite their regular presence during the annual Holy Week rituals, the traditional costumes of the Penitentes have also attracted criticism to the non-Catholic faithful.

“Unfortunately the robe (costume) has been usurped by the anti-Catholic American group, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the late 19th and early 20th century. That is why for many Catholics who have less knowledge of the history of Catholic popular piety, they immediately see in these Penitentes the evil and scary image of the KKK,” said Urbina.

 “Hopefully, non-Paloanos (especially fellow Christians) who encounter them, especially on Good Friday may be reminded of the Lord’s injunction to pray and offer sacrifices,” the prelate wrote.


Pointed, blunt hoods

Josol narrated that in the 1950s, the late Don Pio Pedrosa, a prominent Catholic resident of the town, donated to the confraternity, vestments, rosary beads, and religious articles which most of the members are still using up to the present.

It was at this time that the confraternity institutionalized a form of hierarchical grouping in its ranks according to civil status, position, or assigned tasks.

This grouping was emphasized through the color and design of vestments that the members use such as married members, wearing navy blue robes with pointed hoods; bachelor or unmarried members, wearing violet or deep purple colored robes with black blunted hoods; and officers or senior members, wearing all white robes and pointed hood.

The task of procession marshals was given to the unmarried Penitentes, while the navy blue Penitentes were tasked to carry on their shoulders the different “carrosas or andas (carriage)” of the religious icons.

For their respective task, the white Penitentes are responsible for taking down the image of the Crucified Christ from the cross and bringing it to its crypt after the “Seven Last Words”.

They were also considered as the honor guards of the “Santo Entierro” or the image of the dead Jesus Christ, giving them the sole responsibility of pushing the wheeled carriage of the image during the procession around the town and keeping guard to it during the vigil.

“The infused changes in the design of the hood resulted in the evolution of the more popular moniker of the Penitentes, the ‘Tais (pointed) and Dupol (blunt).’ It should be noted; however, that the changes were confined only to the tasking, structure, and popular name but the essence and objectives of the confraternity remain steadfast,” Josol said.

According to Josol, the first hoods and robes, along with the religious statues and icons used during the group’s formation in the mid-19th century, are still used in Holy Week rites today.

Currently, the Palo Penitentes has about 500 male residents of the town.

The group was formally registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission as a non-profit socio-religious organization in Palo starting in 2004.

“For years it has been observed that people from all over the province, region, country, and even foreigners come to Palo to join the week-long celebration for a more meaningful Holy Week, or witness this colorful religious tradition which Palon-ons have nurtured for years,” Josol said.

“Thus, the Penitentes has been a permanent structure in the religious history, culture, and tradition Palo and will remain as such for years to come,” he added.

To become a member of the group, a male resident must recommended by a bonafide member who could vouch for the sincerity and moral integrity of the neophyte.

Aside from being a practicing Catholic Christian, a would-be member must also know by heart the common prayers, regularly attend holy masses, especially on  Sundays and Holy Hours every first Friday of the month, and receive holy communion regularly.

“Although the society transcends any form of social class or status; from town officials, government employees, laborers, professionals such as lawyers or doctors as well as farmers, pedicab drivers or vendors, the confraternity has been selective in admitting new members,” Josol said.


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