Owing to the fact that an estimated 80 per cent of the country is Catholic, Lenten season is strongly observed throughout the Philippines. The dates falling on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are, in fact, declared non-working Holidays. During this period, regular commercial and social activities are limited if not absent. Filipino Catholics are expected to perform some form of penance or religious devotion in remembrance of what is believed to be the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made to take away the sins of world. As a general rule, eating of meat is usually avoided. People also go to 7 different churches in what is called a Visita Iglesia during Maundy Thursdays. Entertainment shows go temporarily off the air to give way to old movies or TV specials that generally encourage pensiveness and self-reflection. In some parts of the country, many travel long distance by foot going to places which are home to religious icons like grottoes and stations of the crosses.
Many Filipinos, however, push the boundaries of what is actually sanctioned by the Catholic bureaucracy as far as expression of Lenten religious devotion is concerned. Self-flagellation and submission to physical pain and injury are continuously practiced along with crucifixion during Good Friday, which usually falls during March or April when temperatures could rise as high as 38 degrees celsius. Barefooted and half-naked men march through streets under the scorching summer sun, enduring the pain coming from the whipping and beating of their own making and that of strangers’. Through this rite of passage that mimics the sufferings of Jesus Christ when he was sentenced to death and crucified, the penitents believe that a cleansing of soul transpires. Interestingly, the plain black color and simple workmanship of the tattoos on the body of a good number of men whose faces are commonly covered with cloth also somehow confirm what is said that many of the penitents spent some time in jail. One is inclined to wonder if the self-flagellation was then their way of continuously repenting for sins that have already been paid for in prison.
The practice is discouraged by the Catholic church, calling it inappropriate. It is also not difficult to note the health risks involved in the tradition because the back of the flagellants are pierced so many times by common household tools with blades and sharp points in the hands of non-medical professionals. The wounds are kept open, unattended, and even subjected to continuous beating throughout the performance of the ritual. From the flagellants’ body, blood drips down to the ground, giving new meaning to the phrase “painting the town red.”
The longevity of such religious traditions that do not have the blessings of the Church can be attributed to the support given by the communities that accommodate and even nourish them. One of which is Barangay (Village) Malibay in Pasay City, which hosts the annual “Penitensya,” the only one of its kind in the national capital, Metro Manila. In lieu of the local parish, the village government unit facilitates this tradition. There is a common and official route used by participants, many of whom are not residents of the village. Some locals express their support by giving modest food (boiled eggs) and refreshments to the penitents.
Apart from strong community support, what is interesting to note in this tradition is the reinforcement and affirmation of gendered roles. The penitents, on one hand, are predominantly if not exclusively males. On the other hand, women comprise the group that recites and chants the “Pasyon,” which is a narrative of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection and “mans” the final station of the penitence in which a group of religious icons, most notably the crucified Jesus Christ, is assembled for veneration of the penitents upon their completion of the ritual.