Pagsanjan / Cavinti / Luisiana, Laguna, the Philippines
March 27, 2010
An alien in your own land – that’s how it feels being non-Catholic in a predominantly Catholic country. The Philippines, erstwhile colony of Spain, takes pride in being the only Christian (specifically, Catholic) country in Asia – that’s how our culture is more akin to Latin American than Asian. But I was raised a Baptist, a Protestant denomination. I grew up insulated from the rituals and superstitions of the Catholic faith. I have never subscribed to many Filipino traditions because they are, in fact, Catholic traditions; my being a non-traditional Filipino is not iconoclastic but doctrinal.
One such tradition I missed out on is the visita iglesia, loosely translated as “church hopping” – visiting 14 churches in a day – during Lent, or Holy Week as Filipinos prefer to call it. Each church corresponds to one of the Stations of the Cross, or Via Crucis, that represent Jesus’ condemnation, crucifixion, and burial (basically the plot of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ). Since we are not in Jerusalem to retrace Jesus’ steps, local pilgrims visit churches of neighboring towns, which isn’t too hard to do in the Philippines as there’s at least one huge cathedral in every town.
Though not strictly visita iglesia because we went to only 5 churches and it wasn’t Maundy Thursday, the day this is usually done, it was still in this spirit that this pilgrimage was organized. It was my first pilgrimage and I was a curious observer. I took part as a Filipino, latently embracing my cultural identity, not as a devotee to dogma. The first stop was Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Pagsanjan, where the Lady’s statue from Mexico was enshrined.
At first glance, the blindingly white facade seemed too simple for the favored baroque cathedral architecture in the country. The church’s claim to fame was its aisle, said to be one of the longest in the province – making it a favorite venue for weddings (perhaps for those with budget for kilometric wedding gown trains!). In fact, we weren’t able to get in the church because of a wedding. Instead, we were led to an inner courtyard.
I felt rather guilty for loitering and photo-snapping in the courtyard while the pilgrims were saying prayers at a back chapel. Eventually a sense of propriety compelled me to join them, only to be distracted by the sacred items inside. The richly elaborate vaults, vessels, and vestments in a Catholic church were a stark contrast to the decidedly austere Baptist church. The symbolism in these cathedrals was almost flamboyant to my Baptist eye. My eyes feasted while the rest had their eyes closed in prayer.
Next stop was Transfiguration of our Lord Parish in the neighboring town, Cavinti, sitting on rugged terrain. Our huge bus had to gingerly navigate through its narrow, winding streets. The cathedral’s facade was also a drastic departure from Pagsanjan Church. Imposing stone structure, colonial baroque designs, garden-fresh atmosphere were its strong suits.
This church could’ve been the best-looking in the bunch. Perhaps decades ago, it was a breathtaking sight: an old stone church, built in 1621, overlooking a slope dotted by tableaux of the Stations of the Cross. These days, views of both the church and the statues had been crowded out by awkwardly-placed, newly-constructed structures. While I understood that the parish was merely maximizing the use of the church lot, aesthetics should’ve been taken into consideration as well. After all, such cathedrals were not just places of worship but also cultural relics.
Though tempted to take photos, I decided to stay put on the pew and listen to the homily. The Scripture reading was immediately familiar: the famous Pericope Adulterae from the Gospel of John. To me, it contains the Great Equalizer, one of the most dramatic statements by Jesus: “He who has not sinned among you cast the first stone.” In a sentence, it rendered all of humanity – great or small, woman or man, Baptist or Catholic, adulteress or religious leader – on equal footing in the eyes of God. We are all miserably flawed beings – no valid cause for judgment and discrimination. But the passage also contains the most powerful statement of hope and redemption: “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” That’s the essence of Christianity right there – in two biblical sound bites.
Then quite surprisingly, the priest did something I hadn’t heard any priest do. He asked us, the congregation, to group ourselves and discuss which character in the pericope we identified with and share our answers. Group dynamics during a mass! As a teacher, it was way up my alley. I was thankful I heard the homily this time rather than mindlessly taking photos. The message and the ensuing discussion made my Holy Week meditation.
A powerful Holy Week message was delivered, not by a church elder, but an elderly woman. She was bent with age, clambering up the ascending pathway to the church, yet there was an unmistakable spring in her step, evident even from afar. Something told me she religiously walked to church. This scene of unfettered devotion put a different perspective on this pilgrimage of camera-toting, bus-riding pilgrims.
Introspection in a pilgrimage of this size, though, had time limits. The siren suddenly blared, calling all pilgrims to board our buses. The din couldn’t be any more ear-splitting or disruptive in this quiet little town.
Luisiana, Laguna’s border town with Quezon Province, was our next stop. These three towns had distinct personalities: Pagsanjan, the bustling commercial center; Cavinti, the sleepy old town; but Luisiana was in a league of its own. It was a funky town! As the bus rolled into the town center, we were welcomed by a tarpaulin bearing photos of scantily-clad men and women: contestants in a local beauty pageant for both genders – at least there was gender equality in this small town. And this was just beside the town hall and across from the church!
The facade of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish had that unfinished look, probably in the process of reconstruction. A small anteroom opened up to the interior of the cathedral, revealing it to be rather modern than its neighboring towns’ counterparts. What it lacked in its facade, the church more than made up for in its interior – opulent and modern. This church, rebuilt in the late 19th century, was the youngest of the three. This relative youth was clearly evident in so many ways.
Posh chandeliers hung from the wooden ceiling. The retable was made of either marble or granite, with a cross highlighted by backlighting, seemingly embossed. All these anachronistic features made this church look well-funded but also rather off. The parish priest was just as unconventional. I remember him peppering his homily with jokes, but the only thing he said that stuck was how the town got its name – a name combination of its founders: Don Luis and Dona Ana. Luis y Ana = Luisiana (pronounced as lu-wi-sha-na).
The church somehow matched the wild-child personality of the town. It was the only church I had seen to have a wishing well right inside! The incongruous well sat at the base of a huge grotto of the Virgin Mary. Beside the well was a candelabrum stand for votive candles. These flickering lights added to the aura of solemnity; that wishing well distracted from it. I wondered how Catholicism and folk beliefs seemed to be inextricably entwined. That attention-grabbing corner in Luisiana Church straddled the thin line between faith and superstition.
It was just halfway through the pilgrimage but it already emphasized what a misfit I was in my own country. It felt as if I were in another country experiencing and learning about a foreign culture. I took that to mean I wouldn’t always need a passport to be a tourist.