Text by Rocky Nazareno
From all walks of life, they come, barefoot, and their maroon and custard yellow shirts emblazoned with the image of a crucified Jesus Christ in death throes, drenched in sweat, yet all raring to see, touch, or just wipe a piece of cloth on the image of the Black Nazarene.
Distance from the Quiapo Church, or the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene, is not a factor. They come from everywhere, from just meters away in the staunchly Nazarene-devoted Quiapo community to faraway places like Antipolo.
They may arrive just a few blocks away, or may come in buses or in cars. But as they get near the church, they walk barefoot the rest of the way, no humbler than the genuflected image of the Black Nazarene bearing the cross.
Once the Itim na Nazareno, also heralded as Señor, leaves the confines of the Quiapo Church, there is no longer any distinction among the thousands, who cram the streets of Manila to show praise for the image who is widely believed to have gotten its name because it was charred in a fire from its voyage from Mexico to the Philippines in the mid-1600s.
The patron saint of the working masses, the Nazareno has been beseeched by thousands of generations of Filipinos for intervention, ranging from just getting food on their tables to seeing their children through college, asking for promotion at work, or seeking a cure for major ailments.
For the devotees of the Black Nazarene, He is the go-to-guy when all else has failed.
More Than a Rock Star
This is why millions come each year on Jan. 9 without fail to celebrate the Feast of the Black Nazarene for a procession around Manila like no other.
Moreover, the Shrine to the Black Nazarene, as well as the tradition itself, has been replicated and practiced in Cagayan de Oro City and, for the first time tomorrow, in Tagum, Davao del Norte.
Mostly men, devotees called mamamasan (bearers) fight for every inch along the procession’s route just to get near the andas or carosa (carriage) bearing the image of the cross-bearing Black Nazarene, and have the privilege of clambering up against the statue and touching a part of the “Nazareno.”
The term mamamasan is even acknowledged by Fr. Douglas Badong, parochial vicar and assistant parish priest at the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene or more popularly known as Quiapo Church, as a misnomer simply because the image of the Nazareno is no longer borne on shoulders of the bearers, but merely wheeled around during the procession on a carriage assembled by Sarao Motors.
“The term may have come from the first time that the Nazareno was taken on a procession, and that was the platform borne on the shoulders of devotees. Besides, devotees relate to the image of the Black Nazarene, Himself, who bears a cross,” Badong explained.
If scaling the andas proves impossible with the thousands gathered around the Nazareno at any given moment during the procession, the mamamasan would be content with just being able to jostle into the 50-meter line that pulls the andas, joining in the wild abandon to heave and pull the carosa through the streets of Manila.
If getting a place on that line also proves impractical, devotees strive to get near enough the andas, muscling their way through the thick crowd in a bid to throw Nazareno towels or handkerchiefs at those tasked with guarding the statue, who would then wipe these on the Nazareno and throw them back at them.
“I have been to Quiapo (church) twice in the last two years, yet this kind of devotion never ceases to amaze me,” said Badong, 41, who hails from Singalong, Manila.
“The devotees (of the Nazareno), especially those who are really sincere, are more intense than mine—as a priest,” he said in underscoring the spectacle he has witnessed as assistant parish priest in what is probably the most attended Catholic Church in the Philippines.
Badong is also “amazed” at the devotees of the Nazareno, not only those who come in droves for the annual traslacion (procession), but also those who venerate Him regularly.
“Punongpuno and simbahan mula 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. na mga misa. Kahit 12 midnight na, may tao pa rin kahit wala nang misa. Andun lang sila nakaluhod, nananalangin (The church is always full from the 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. hourly masses. Even at 12 midnight, when there are no more masses, there are still people, on their knees, praying),” said Badong, a hotel employee before he decided to become a priest.
The phenomenon that is the annual Feast of the Black Nazareno, or Pista ng Nazareno, also astonishes Arnel Irasga, the 15-year President of the Hijos del Nazareno, the group of mostly male members tasked with guarding the Black Nazarene.
“Yun nga ang nakakapagtaka eh. Araw araw naman puno ang simbahan. Pero pagdating sa prosesyon, napakarami pa rin nila (That’s what is perplexing. They come to the church every day. Yet when the procession comes, they still come in droves),” he noted.
Among other duties at the Minor Basilica, Badong is also tasked with coordinating with the Hijos del Nazareno, a congregation of mostly male members, who are sworn to guard the Black Nazarene with their lives.
Two years ago, Renato Burion, 44, of Sampaloc Manila died of a heart attack while protecting the image of the Black Nazarene as it made its way through the huge crowd in Rizal Park.
Burion was trapped on top of the andas as he tried to keep on-rushing devotees from clambering up the carriage, but all the commotion caused him to suffer a heart attack. It took rescuers 15 minutes to get to him, and he was declared dead on arrival at the nearby Manila Doctors Hospital.
“That’s also our problem among the devotees. Many of them come with some kind of a death wish. They’re willing to die during the procession,” Badong said.
‘Sons of the Nazareno’
But for Irasga, who heads the 300-strong Hijos del Nazareno, all these come with the devotion.
“Yung ipitan, normal na ‘yun. Hindi rin biro yung basta ka lang lalahok dyan (The jostling during the procession is normal. It’s not a joke to join the procession),” the former jeepney driver from San Juan said.
Apart from acting as marshals during the traslacion, the Hijos – particularly those posted atop the Andas – prevent scrambling devotees from getting too near the Nazareno that they could touch His face or grab a piece of His hair.
While guarding the Señor, they are also prohibited from getting a bite to eat atop the andas.
“Hindi pwedeng kumain doon kasi sagradoang Poong Nazareno. Konting tubig lang (You can’t eat there because the image of Jesus Christ is sacred. Just a few sips of water),” said Irasga, who recalled that last year’s traslacion, which lasted for 18 hours from the Quirino Grandstand at Rizal Park to the Minor Basilica, as among the longest ever.
For all their hard work just to make the traslacion safe and without a hitch every year, Badong and Irasga were one in complaining that the ranks of the Nazareno devotees have been infiltrated by mere thrillseekers or young people just out to have a good time.
“Yung ibang mga pumupunta, hindi properly evangelized, kaya puro out of curiosity. Kapag inimbitahan mong umattend ng misa, hindi aatend. Gusto lang nila sa pasanan (Some are not properly evangelized. They just go out of curiosity. If you invite them to go to mass, they don’t come. They just want to join the procession),” said Badong.
He also noted that there are those who join the traslacion “para magpa-cute, makipag-kumpetisyon, pagalingan kasi nakaakyat sila, nakahawak sila (to make themselves look cute, to compete and outdo each other in climbing or touching the Nazareno). Hindi naman natin sila pwedeng itaboy (We just can’t drive them away)” Badong added.
Irasga echoed Badong’s misgivings, saying that he even got reports that some youngsters have reduced participation in the traslacion to a mere dare, or a game, on who gets to set foot on the andas first.
Worse, the chief guardian of the Black Nazarene rued that there were those who come to the procession intoxicated. “Nanghihiram ng tapang sa alcohol, kumukuha ng lakas sa alcohol (They borrow courage from alcohol, get energy from alcohol), was how Irasga described them.
“Pakiusap naming na iwasan lahat ‘yan. Nandiyan kami para pakiusapan sila na respetuhin natin ang Poong Nazareno (We’re asking them not to do those things. We’re always here to ask them to respect the Black Nazarene),” Irasga appealed.
But both Badong and Irasga recognize that the traslacion, which drew a record 12 million attendees in 2013, is bound to get bigger as more and more Filipinos realize the “miraculous virtues” of the Black Nazarene.
“Dumadami yung witnessing. Maraming tao yung nagse-share na ‘punta ka sa Quiapo kasi talagang merong milagro. Sasagutin talaga ng Nazareno ang mga prayers mo (More and more are witnessing, sharing that they should go to Quiapo because miracles do happen. The Nazareno will answer your prayers),” said Badong.
And these miracles, the young priest added, included even mundane ones like being able to get food on their table, or get passing grades in school.
“It’s the everyday miracles that the Nazareno grants. Though small, they give relief and hope to our devotees,” Badong said.
As for Irasga, he didn’t need to look far to show that he was never wrong in throwing his all-out devotion to the Nazareno. “I found out that I had lung cancer a few years ago, stage 4 na. But now, I’m cured. I have a beautiful family, I have a peaceful life. What more can I ask for? It’s all because of the Nazareno,” he said.