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by Kalinga Seneviratne

The only concessions are stainless steel nails soaked in alcohol to ward off infections and cloth straps added for support

(IPS) -- The throngs that gather every year on Good Friday on a hill overlooking the paddy fields of San Pedro Cutud to witness gory reenactments of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ are creating unease within the Catholic church here.

"We believe that it is gruesome to inflict pain on the body. You don't have to resort to such extreme punishment of the body to change hearts," Father Sonny Lumanog, rector of the San Fernando Metropolitian Cathedral, told IPS.

The festive atmosphere that pervades the village of San Pedro Cutud, with loudspeakers blaring pop music, thousands of people in colorful picnic gear, food and drink stalls doing brisk business and tourist coaches bringing in scores of foreign tourists are a far cry from the sombre mood that pervades most churches around the world on Good Friday.

San Fernando tourism authorities acknowledge that the church is opposed to this festival, but they insist that this is the culture of the local people and needs to be respected. "We don't refer to this as a religious festival," lordes Carmella Pangilinan, senior tourism operations officer of the city tourism office, explained to IPS. "But, we do respect the views of the penitents that what they do is an act of faith for them. On our part we are promoting the cultural aspects of the community here."

Good Friday fest

San Fernando is about two hours drive north of Manila and a few km away from the former United States air force base at Clark Bay which, since its conversion into Manila's second international airport, has been seeing a steady influx of tourists riding in on budget airlines.

Angeles City, close to the airport, is now a famous nightclub area attracting foreign tourists. Within the Clark special economic zone are well established hotels and resorts, including the Casino Filipino.

The crucifixion ceremony known as the San Pedro Cutud Lenten Ritual adds to the tourism profile of the region. This year there were several camera crews including from National Geographic filming the event. The festival is also widely covered by the local media, and it is featured every year on television networks across Asia, attracting Asian tourists in ever larger numbers.

At least 150 foreign tourists attended this year's spectacle -- many of them seated on a special stage set up for the purpose.

The ritual in which penitents drag a wooden cross for almost a mile culminates in their being nailed to a wooden cross rigged up atop a makeshift Calvary. The only concession to the original are nails made of stainless steel and soaked in alcohol to ward off infections and cloth straps around limbs for additional support.

Penitents are taken down only when they feel cleansed of their sins. Scores of other shirtless male penitents also converge on the hill, blood oozing from their backs from whipping. Some men use broken glass to slit their backs to enhance the goriness.

"The penitents here have a particular reason why they do it, first it's a vow of faith, they have special prayers that need to be answered and this is a way of expressing their faith," noted Pangilinan.

"Last year there was a Briton who wanted to be crucified but, at the last minute, he backed out. I think it's primarily because he does not understand the culture that we have here and the significance of this particular event to us (Filipinos) as a people," she argues.

Father Lumanog notes that the ritual here on Good Friday is really an amalgamation of oriental traditions of inflicting corporeal pain to rid oneself of sins and the Christian tradition of reflecting on the suffering of Jesus during the holy week.

Spain introduced Christianity into the Philippines in 1565 with the arrival of Miguel Lopez de Legaspi and today 85 percent of the 88 million population follow the Roman Catholic faith.

"There is a distinction between official liturgy of the church which happens at the cathedral and some other traditions that we have here," he argues. "Maybe people feel, if they cannot identify with the suffering of Jesus, they are not really celebrating holy week."

The city's leading Catholic prelate sees this festival as a reflection of how local people's age-old, pre-Christian beliefs in Asia's only predominantly Christian nation have subtly been passed from generation to generation and are being maintained by appropriating beliefs from Catholic theology.

Men who perform this ritual have different reasons for doing it. Some may be fulfilling a vow to god in exchange for help given for an ailing relative while others may do it for the well being of their families.

Donicio Darcel, a 30-year-old man, while receiving medical attention for deep wounds inflicted by the crucifixion told IPS: "I do it for my family. I want the family to be together." Darcel went on to explain that after his wife ran away with another man he decided to perform the ritual to get her back. Though she returned to him after he went through crucifixion last year, she has left him again and thus he is repeating this to get her back.

A young man, who gave his name as Rene, and had blood oozing from his whipped back said, initially, he did it ‘'for fun." That seemed to confirm the view of some that many young men see the festival as a rite of passage and show ‘manliness.' But questioned further, he told IPS: "I did a big mistake last year and I'm doing this to cleanse myself of the sins and to be good." He also wanted his brother to recover from a serious illness.

"The perspective of the church is that it is much better to have a change of heart, a change of personality, a change of behavior according to what Jesus wants us to be," argues Father Lumanog. "We talk to them at holy mass, to families through doctrinal introductions -- we try our best (to convince them against the rituals) but cultural traditions are persistent."

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Albion Monitor   April 10, 2007   (

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