There are an estimated 90 million people in the Philippines, and of that number, 80 to 85 percent are confessed Catholics. The rest are composed of different Protestant sects, Muslims, and other religions, including Buddhists, Hindus, animists, and a very small, almost non-existent atheist population. Despite these statistics, it is very rare to come across adult converts to Catholicism. Most who do convert do so for marital reasons or for the simple fact that they were not baptized at all in infancy; the learned convert, who knocks at the Church because 'they have found the Truth', are quite rare. On the other hand, many Catholics are lured into joining different sects, the most notable of which include the modern day Arians of the Iglesia ni Kristo and evangelical Protestants. In many rural areas, conversions still carry with them a social gravity that is now largely absent in urban areas.
The irony, though, is palpable; most rural Filipino Catholics are quite ignorant of theological wrangling and wouldn't give a hoot if the priest wore cheap polyester chalbs to Mass, or kept mistresses (or worse, boytoys) in a special room of the convento. For them, the Mass is the Mass, and the Church is the Church, despite the sometimes blatant hypocrisy of its religious leaders. Former president Estrada, for example, is revered as a hero to the masses, even if he was notorious for siring illegitimate children left and right. Rural areas also serve as ground zero for some of the most 'extreme' practices in the entire Catholic world, namely flagellation and crucifixion (especially Bulacan and Pampanga).
My religious background was greatly influenced by my environment; I have lived all my life in the city, and as such, I think I could safely say that my faith has largely been convenient. I've never had to trudge through hundred foot long naves on my knees, nor have I ever knelt on salt with arms crosswise to atone for my sins. I understood how the faith worked; and while I wish I were a better Catholic, I am thankful that such rituals have never been imposed on me. But at the same time, few rituals such as the practice of flagellation arouse in me such extreme revulsion-- and insatiable wonder. In rural Catholicism, especially in Luzon the largest island of the Philippines, flagellation is as natural as taking to the sea when it's hot. It is accepted as a normal part of life, and while not necessarily pretty, it serves its purpose-- a contractual sacrifice offered to Almighty God in order to secure blessings for one's kin-group. I have already written about the character of these devotees before; they are usually 'unchurched' macho men who would rather drink and whore than attend church. While not all are totally cut off from the 'churchly life'-- some assist in processions, for example-- to say that these men are good Catholics would be a brazen lie. Atonement for sins, in fact, is very rarely, if never, the motivation behind shedding blood.
In hindsight, this is probably one reason why flagellation as a devotional practice is still doing very well in the Philippines. Just a few decades after the practice was introduced in the country, the missionaries who brought it were already decrying it as barbaric. It seems to have peaked in the 1700s and shrank to nigh obliteration in the following years; the late 1800s, though, saw a revival in the practice, and by the mid 1950s, after having been fetishized by American colonizers and appropriating the practice in accordance with already deeply held beliefs, flagellation was transformed into the spectacle that it is today: a deeply disturbing, but at the same time, an incredibly fascinating ritual, where children as young as 5 or 7 are expected to observe or even help in the proceedings, thus ensuring the continuance of the practice in succeeding generations. If expiation of sins were the sole purpose, I'd imagine most of these men would have been dead by the time they finished their vows.
As for myself, I've long ago come to the conclusion that even an edict from the Vatican to suppress the practice would be powerless to stop devotional flagellation from continuing. The landscape of Catholic culture is broad, vast, and deep, and dare I say it, incredibly menacing. Men whip their backs raw and bloody and walk on their knees and lick the dust from the floor and make beasts of burden genuflect to a 'vengeful' saint all in the hopes of appeasing the Deity. Today, in our sanitized little bubbles and high-resolution screens, we can click and comment and argue about the 'Truth', as if the Truth were some magical ham locked away in some heavenly freezer. And while I certainly believe Catholicism to be true, we are still confronted by the 'extremities' of these strange and uncomfortable practices. Will your average internet culture crusader still see Catholicism as true, having been faced with its menace? I don't think so. The fault does not lay in the religion, though, but in our own attitudes to it; because for us moderns, the marks of the 'true religion' are not Unity, Sanctity, Catholicity, and Apostolicity, but Inclusiveness, Respectability, Diversity, and Marketablility. Catholicism is none of these things. It is bloody, it is gritty, it believes in sin, hell, and damnation. These things are as real as the blood on the flagellants' back, and you better be damn sure that even the worse Catholics would raise hell just to avoid being thrown in it for all eternity.
If I may be so honest, I'd say one reason why many Catholics choose to stay in their Church despite all its failures is because it is not afraid to threaten fire and brimstone at sinners. In many provinces, it is still common for older priests to describe Protestants in the same way their predecessors of a hundred years ago did: as (literally!) hoofed, horned, and perfidious men, whose forked tongues affront the teachings of the saints and Christ (some priests in the Visayas, I believe, made the same claim about the SSPX). The Church may tolerate the sinfulness of their members while on earth, but there is still a Hell for the unjust and the impious in the end. I guess it all boils down to how we understand what is traditional and what is not; the prevailing attitude today, especially espoused by bloggers, is that going back to the way we did things in the good ol' 1950s would solve all the problems in the Church today. I really find this ludicrous. It smacks of an attitude of entitlement, more than anything, as if Church-government policy would solve all the woes of the world, and we can all sit back and relax. Hey, I'm in the truthiest of the 'truth-mongers'; what else could possibly go wrong? We have the Truth! Reality is a lot more sobering than what we would be led to believe; and while I am most definitely NOT saying that the cause for tradition is worthless, one must also remember that, in the end, the liturgy is not there to bring you automatic salvation. It can help make you holy, yes, but it does not, can not, will not, eliminate the need for you and I to apply its fruits.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that the normal Catholic ought, should, have more pressing concerns than guessing what the Pope will wear in his next televised Mass and worry more about his own salvation. For all the criticisms thrown at cultural Catholicism, it at least provided Catholics with enough sense of guilt to be conscious of themselves as sinners. In the end, salvation is not achieved by being a busybody, as if causing a ruckus in church were a sign of saintliness; rather, salvation is achieved only in total surrender to God. And that is something that takes a lot more than knowing when it is appropriate to wear a mantellata and bitching about its misuse. It is not even pretty. It is, in fact, menacing. To think we can ignore the wisdom of our 'ignorant' forefathers just because we have come to the intellectual conclusion that Catholicism is the Truth would be a very costly mistake.