Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Church of the Gutters

There is no bigger festivity in the whole of Manila than the feast of the Black Nazarene. Held for the last four hundred years on January 9th, the feast draws literally hundreds of thousands of participants-- men mostly-- to the venerable Quiapo church. These men, mostly from the lower classes, come in droves, usually armed with a white, woolen towel, a miniature replica of the Nazarene, and are almost universally clothed in Maroon. The highlight of this feast is the procession. At around noon, the gilded carriage of the Black Nazarene is processed out of the church, where it is greeted by a sea of shouts from the thronging crowd. The men wave their towels in the air, while shouting salutations at the image of Christ. This image of Christ carrying His Cross is famed throughout the country as the sole, miraculous survivor of a fire that ravaged a ship en route to Manila from Mexico, and is said to bring fortune, health and blessings to those who venerate it.

Upon the carriage, dozens of men crowd around the statue. They are the 'official guardians' of the image, and are in charge of wiping the Nazarene's face with the towels thrown at them, and subsequently returning these to their owners. Looking at the scene, one would think it were a pagan festival, Jaganatha Puri transported to Manila via some strange coincidence of fate. But pagan festival it is not; it is one of the last vestiges of a simple, unadulterated faith that has been largely supplanted by an unhealthy rationalism. It is Catholicism in its rawest form.

As a child, I remember being fascinated by my visits to more venerable churches of Manila. I marveled at the multitude of life size santos, dressed in their heavily embroidered tablecloths and blond wigs made from abaca. I stared in wonder at altars and retables shrouded in a sea of silver and gold and cried at the sight of a bloody Spanish crucifix, complete with gaping wounds and torrents of blood gushing from them, the arms and legs of the Corpus almost black. I stared in amazement at the numberless women, heavily mantilla-ed up to their backs as they crawled their way towards the altar, and wondered how long they could hold their arms in a 'cross' position while they prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries. Catholicism has never been a middle-class religion. As the title of this post suggests, it is in the gutters where Catholicism has largely been cultivated.

Many conservative and traditionalist Catholics today are sadly disdainful of these practices. It strikes me as strange how many traditionalists are able to memorize as many encyclicals as possible, genuflect until their knees pop, and discern an approved litany from another, but are unable to even pray the Stations of the Cross properly, for example. Many pride themselves in their ability to recite Newman or Belloc or Chesterton at the drop of a hat, but have never seen a Pieta Prayer Booklet before or read about the Fifteen Hidden Tortures. They pray only the approved novenas but are reluctant or disdainful of touching, say, a plastic St. Joseph statue and wiping it with their hankies or kissing its feet. They go to all three masses of All Souls' Day but gawk at the notion of keeping an overnight vigil at the cemetery.

Gone are the simple piety and trust that characterized the faith of our grandfathers. Instead, it has been supplanted by a rationalized paper religion, a Catholicism of the mind but thoroughly lacking in heart.

Catholicism was able to maintain its sanity throughout its troubled history precisely by treating its holy days as holidays. For instance, it is the only religion that honors St. Benedict, that most austere of saints, with the gaudiness and flamboyance of the Spanish Baroque. It is the only religion where 'the servant of the servants of God' wears a gold-encrusted triple crown and is (rather, used to be) carried on a portable throne supported on the backs of twelve men. I recall reading some time ago how John Henry Cardinal Newman once visited a Catholic church in Rome. It was like being in another world for him: people knelt and bowed at the altar, thronged around statues of saints, worshipped bones and other dismembered paraphernalia of dead men. In particular, he noticed how an elderly woman took the prayer booklet of another who had just entered the confessional. Yet through it all, there was a sense of something 'objective' being done. For the first time, he thought, he had seen real worship manifested in the simple piety of these people ( read more about this in I.T. Ker's "Catholic Revival in English Literature 1845-1961: Newman, Hopkins, Belloc, Chestertone, Greene, Waugh").

Catholicism is very much a human religion; it is a religion of the mind as well as the heart. Among the ranks of its saints, one may find superb intellectuals like the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas, seemingly irredeemable sinners such as Augustine, alleged "hippies" like Francis of Assisi and a host of other personalities. There seems to be a notion that all Catholics are expected to be these perfectly-mannered, insufferably polite, basically very middle-class group of characters. Nothing could be further from the truth. Majority of the world's Catholics subsist on pitiable salaries that go into the feeding and rearing of their children. But that is not what this post is about.

I find it ironic how many conservatives and traditionalists see cultural Catholicism as some sort of disease or malady that is irreconcilable with the proper practice of Faith. It is ironic in that these cultural practices are sometimes the only vestiges left of the old soul of the Church as practiced in the days of our grandfathers. Processions, plastic statues, embroidered tablecloths, all of these were fixtures of the Catholicism of old. Why, then, do we disdain them so much? Perhaps this is the greatest tragedy of Vatican II: how the practice of Catholicism has been reduced to nothing more than having valid sacraments and fulfilling obligation for the sake of fulfilling it.

Make no mistake: valid sacraments are integral to Catholicism. But aside from that, the Church today is seemingly devoid of the character it once possessed. In the attempt to 'go back to the basics', we have spurned the practices of our elders; we have robbed Catholicism of its character. By concentrating purely on a sacramental and didactic model of the Church, Catholicism becomes a mere collection of articles to which we either assent to or not.

Prior to the Reformation, the term 'devout Catholic' was a redundant, perhaps even non applicable term. In the book "The Church: A Pictorial History" (1961), a typical scene in Catholic England was laid out. The account describes how the English, for example, would all recite the "Pater Noster" in the town square at a certain time, and how everyday the churches were packed with worshippers. Their Faith was simple; it was the devotion of a child to his father, the tenderness of a mother to her child. It was not an intellectualized abstraction, but the effusion of love from a dedicated son or daughter. It is sad how these scenes are virtually consigned to the dust bins of memory. Indeed, I wonder what would have become of England had the Reformation not happened; it is saddening to think that this once most Catholic country is now removed of the traces of religion, Catholic or otherwise.

There is something haunting, and the same time comforting, at doing something that has been done for hundreds of years prior to you by people who have already long gone. In praying the Stations of the Cross, I sometimes wonder if a Dominic or a Francis Xavier's knees hurt as much as mine did, or if an Ignatius or an Augustine had an irrational fear of ghosts while keeping vigil in a cemetery. I sometimes if the priests of yesterday actually mumbled their Masses, or if they just spoke really bad and accented Latin as in some cases today. The clasping of hands, the beating of the chest, the double and single genuflections are haunting reminders that this is how it was always done. It is the entire history of the Church, distilled and refined into one action. This is Tradition; it is knowing that somehow, someone, somewhere at one time or another, can walk into a church and worship as he always has. And although you may never laugh with them, talk with them, kiss them or be with them, it is a most comforting thought to have.

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