Holy Week, which includes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Black Saturday, and Easter Sunday, is an important holiday in Christian communities, as this is the end of the Lenten season, and also the time frame that encompasses Jesus Christ’s capture, crucifixion, death, and resurrection.
In the Philippines, Asia’s largest Catholic country, Holy Week means many things – for most people, the national holiday means a long vacation. For some Catholics, it means going on the Visita Iglesia, where the devout try to visit and pray at seven churches on either Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. And for a select few, it means doing penance by staging Christ’s flagellation and crucifixion.
Every Good Friday, devotees from the towns of San Fernando, San Jose, and Santa Lucia in the province of Pampanga, as well as in some other parts of the Philippines, re-enact the Passion of the Christ. Called ‘penitensya,’ or penance, the tradition is a restaging of the Stations of the Cross – Jesus’ walk to his crucifixion.
Men in Roman centurion costumes lead a man dressed as Jesus Christ, who walks barefoot while carrying a giant cross. The procession, which takes place under the scorching summer sun, is followed by penitents – men who whip their backs bloody – a symbol of the whipping Jesus endured on the way to his execution.
Even though it’s not exactly for the faint of heart, the event has become a tourist attraction with both the curious and the faithful travelling from around the world to witness events unfold. There are first aid stations, with doctors on hand. Vendors also set up shop along the route, giving the event a slightly festive, if serious, affair.
The Catholic Church’s Stance
The tradition started in 1962, and has continued annually despite the disapproval of the Catholic Church, which recommends fasting, prayer, and confessing of sins as Lenten practices. Participants view it as a way to atone for their sins and also as a way for God to hear their prayers. Others participate as a fulfilment of a religious promise.
Monsignor Pedro Quitorio, the spokesman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, said in an interview that the Church discourages customs such as these where participants expect to be rewarded for voluntarily inflicting pain on themselves. Even so, the Catholic Church admits that it has no power to stop such practices.
Professing One’s Faith
For the many who continue with the tradition, the Penitensya is an expression of their devotion despite the Church’s disapproval of it. They consider it a privilege to take part in this annual event. It’s also become part of the Philippine Holy Week celebrations – just another way of professing one’s faith.