Popular religiosity in the Philippines

Paul J. Marquez, SSP

When the Spanish conquistadores first came to the shores of the Philippine islands, they found a people that worshipped anitos or spirits of their ancestors. Filipinos revered and offered gifts to the anitos in exchange for protection from evil, harm or danger. When the Christian faith was introduced to early Filipinos, they readily accepted the new teachings about Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints. However, sociologists point out that what really transpired was the Christianization of our animistic beliefs. The power believed to be immanent in the anitos is now transferred to the person of Jesus, Mary and all the saints; rather than seeing them as models of a holy life or paragons of virtues, these holy men and women of our faith are seen in the same light that early Filipinos saw the anitos— as powerful gods, at times capricious whose anger needed to be appeased with atang or offering. We find traces of such folk belief in expressions of popular religiosity, and these traces are found in every Filipino religious celebration throughout the year.
Here, the author sketches only a few samples of popular religious practices seen
in the first quarter of the year.

Black Nazarene

January 9 is a red-letter day for Filipinos celebrating the feast of Señor Jesus Nazareno. The centuries-old statue of the Black Nazarene is paraded in the streets of Quiapo and is carried and accompanied by a majority of barefooted male devotees. A rope is tied to the image and those who could not get near the statue are just as happy to hold on to the rope. The rope is later cut into pieces and the participants in the feast divide this among themselves. The portion of the rope serves alternately as a souvenir, a badge of honor or a lucky charm.
Nobody wears slippers or shoes during the procession. It is a gesture of showing
one’s respect to the sacred ground although for practical reason, it is best to join in the procession unshod otherwise one’s footwear easily gets torn or lost in the push and shove of the big crowd. To refrain from wearing any footwear is also
to be considerate towards others as one might step upon and do much harm to
others if one is wearing a heavy pair of shoes.
The centuries-old image of Señor Jesus Nazareno is said to have originated from Mexico. The ship that ferried it to Manila caught fire and capsized but the statue was salvaged although the heavy smoke turned it black. Another theory behind the dark image of the statue states that its makers simply followed the dark color of the Mexican Incas. For many years now, the image of Señor Jesus Nazareno has drawn a lot of male devotees who are not regular churchgoers but mostly ordinary sun-burnt workers living difficult lives. They can easily identify with the Black Nazarene who is bent by life’s troubles, and they get tremendous assurance and hope knowing how the Poong Nazareno shares in their own sufferings. In short, it is an image that truly speaks to their experience, an image of God that they consider truly their own.
Another occasion of celebrating Señor Jesus Nazareno is New Year’s Day. In the afternoon after Mass, the image is brought out of the Church for a thanksgiving
procession. Here, one does not see the multitude of male devotees one finds on
January 9 and there is no pushing and shoving. Instead, the much smaller crowd
is a motley mix of different people of all ages casually walking in their footwear.
They go about in a happy mood, thanking God for the gift of a new year.
In stark contrast, Black Nazarene devotees celebrate Good Friday in a somber
mood in keeping with the celebration of the Lord’s Passion and Death. Devotees
join in the procession covering their head and face with a black cloth called “paso”
and they also wear a crown of thorns. Such is the devotees’ way of fulfilling their
“panata” or vow to God. Such participation also affords them the chance to join in
the “pakikiramay” or condoling with the bereaved.
The fourth time that the Señor Jesus Nazareno is paraded in the streets is on every fifth Sunday in Lent, also known as the “Lazarus Sunday”.
The Way of the Cross is a component part in the celebration and volunteers alternate in carrying the image to the various Stations. The crowd here is the regular Sunday crowd of Mass goers and among the four Nazarene celebrations, this procession is said to be the most appropriate liturgically since the celebration is directly supervised by the Church from beginning to end.

Señor Santo Niño

If the men of Quiapo can identify with the suffering Nazarene, people in the Visayas find the Santo Niño very appealing. The jovial and fun-loving population
in Kalibo, Aklan is said to have celebrated the first Ati-Atihan festival around the
year 1212 when a small group of Malay datus who fled Borneo came to Panay
Island. The Ati, with dark skin and curly hair, were the original inhabitants of the
island. There was much rejoicing on that day when the Ati sold some land to the
datus who painted themselves black to look like the Atis. Thus, Ati-Atihan literally
means “to be like an ati”.
The festival now stretches for two weeks although the most important celebrations are the last three days marked by a parade where participants outshine one another with their costumes. Originally a pagan rite, the Church has adopted this occasion of revelry to honor Señor Santo Niño or the Child Jesus. In Cebu, the Sinulog festival commemorates Ferdinand Magellan’s gift of the image of the Child Jesus to Queen Juana, wife of Rajah Humabon. The image, which is said to be very miraculous, is being kept today at the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño in Cebu.
The festival in Aklan has morphed into different versions in other key Visayan
cities: Dinagyang in Iloilo, Halaran in Capiz, Binilirayan in Antique, Maskara in
Bacolod. The colorful and vibrant processions usually start from the church patio
with the cry: Pit Senor!
Even non-Christians participate in the parades, dancing and merrymaking. With its magnitude and with the interest it has generated especially from foreign tourists, Ati-Atihan can easily be the Philippines Mardi Gras. The devotion to Señor Santo Niño has since spread across the archipelago and even beyond our country, thanks to overseas Filipino workers.
In Filipino milieu, the child at home is very important and can even become the center of everybody’s attention. Thus, the Santo Niño occupies a special place in the family altar, usually with a green moneybag that is supposed to enhance the family fortune.
While Filipinos correctly admire the Santo Niño for his innocence and humility, there is a very real danger that we reduce ourselves to a feel-good acquaintance with the Niño and turn him into a pet rather than ourselves facing the challenge to grow in age, grace and wisdom like Jesus.
Nowadays, the Niño is seen in uniforms of varied occupations like that of a doctor, a fireman, a fisherman, police officer, baker and many others.

Holy Week rituals

Filipinos have a distinct way in celebrating the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Passion Sunday is also Palm Sunday and throngs of people who come to church
on that day carry palm fronds or palaspas designed from coconut leaves. These are used to welcome Jesus in the person of the priest who presides in the narration of Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem and Jesus’ passion on the Cross. After the celebration, which usually culminates in an evening procession, the palaspas is brought home and placed by the window in the house with the belief that the blessed palm fronds will ward of evil spirits or lightning.
The pabasa begins on Holy Monday. Elder members of the household usually
lead in the chanting of the narration of Christ’s passion. This is a long-held
tradition of many generations of families who consider such practice as their
panata, a sacred vow that cannot be broken lest kamalasan (misfortune)
or evil will come to the family. The chanting follows a dragging rhythm and
the tune expresses sentiments of a penitent’s plea for forgiveness. To listen
to old women’s non-stop chanting through a loudspeaker system can be considered enough penance for one’s sins, considering that the chanting goes on until midnight of Black Friday.
Since the story of man’s salvation, won by Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross is dramatic enough, expect the Filipinos to dramatize this in an even more spectacular
way. Even before I started to read the Bible, as a young child I was already exposed to the senakulo, the story of the Last Supper leading to Jesus’ arrest, passion and death. The characters in the Bible were acted out on stage by amateur thespians whose colorful costumes kept the audience spellbound! Who would not cry in pity for the Blessed Mother after Roman soldiers had killed her son Jesus? Who would not be disgusted with Judas? The popular play never failed to touch a raw nerve among the common people.
If the senakulo generates strong emotions among country folk, nothing else beats the annual drama of the flagellantes and the actual crucifixion of devotees in Pampanga on Good Friday.
In barangay San Pedro Cutud, one can smell blood mixed in sweat beneath the glaring sun. Vendors hawk their goods while the local settlers mingled and gawked at foreign tourists. The penitents take center stage and they come in three different categories. The most numerous are the so-called “cross-bearers” or mamusan while the “crawlers” or magsalibatbat are the least in numbers. They crawl like worms, rubbing their skin against the dirt road covering their entire body with dust and soil.
The third kind of penitents, are the men who are crucified known as the cristos.
The flagellantes and the cristos undergo this annual form of sacrifice to be sorry for their sins and to ask favors from God. Their concerns vary widely—the good
health of a sick family member, to pass the board exam, to win in the lottery or, as presented in a Robin Padilla flick, to get a US visa. They wear hoods and wreaths on their head as they flagellate themselves with bamboo reeds and use an instrument called panabad to draw as much blood as possible from previously-inflicted wounds.
They pass through the Via Cruces (Way of the Cross), a 3-kilometer stretch of
dirt road before they reach the “Golgotha”, site of the crucifixion.

Room for Growth

We have to be careful to pass judgment on the people’s popular religious practices. For one, most of these practices keep the faith of many simple people alive and vibrant, something that the traditional
practices inside the Church fail to deliver. However, the Church will also be remiss if she does not speak against the abuses committed in the pursuit of such practices. The clamor of people towards a more vibrant, more inspiring and hope-filled celebration remains a tremendous pastoral challenge for the Church and is a real opportunity for growing together in our Catholic faith. (Impact, March 2008)



by fr. Leonardo N.Mercado, SVD  (From World Mission, november 2010)

A theological dissertation was defended at Manila’s De la Salle University in April 2010. It is entitled “Undersanding Ancestor Reverence in the Benguet Kankanaey Indigenous Tradition: towards a Dialogue with Christian Traditions. The author, Leonila L.Taray, also a member of the Kankanaeys of the Cordilleras, writes that the century-old indigenous people traditional practices are still quite alive today. Although the findings of the study refer to Kankanaey society, we may also apply them to other indigenous people and lowland Christian Filipinos.

Taray writes that, even after death, the departed “remain as member of the family and the clan”, that “they have the power to grant blessings, shower prosperity, long life, and healthy life for their descendants on earth. It is also within their power to cause illness and misfortunes to the living.” Their mode of action is rooted in clan lineage, consanguinity and affinity.

The Kankanaeys also believe that the spirits of those who recently died are perceived to linger on earth for some time. That is why the living invite the departed to join in the rituals, to partake in eating and drinking in ordinary gatherings. This belief is shown when the living put in few drops of liquor before drinking.

In MetroManila, where the men informally gather in side alleys over drinks and finger food, a common practice in the gathering is to empty a few drops in the glass and pour the contents into the ground. We have heard on an incident where some professionals with PhDs, during a tennis break, poured out a drink to the spirits.


Th Kankanaeys behave and act in the conviction that daily life is linked with social economic, and the religious. Because the departed and the living are integrated as one, religion permeates all aspects of life. Taray writes: “Those who lived in the past continue to relate with and affect the lives of those in the present; those in the sky world continue to join and bless those in the earth during performance of rituals or ceremonies and those in the underworld are enjoined likewise. Thus, the Benguet Kankanaeys perceive the world as an integrated world of the living and the dead. Humanity does not stand apart from nature.

While Greek-inspired Western theology speaks of the natural and the supernatural, the Kankanaeys and Filipino popular religiosity prefer to speak of the seen and unseen. This way of thinking  is also in the Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth , of all that is seen and unseen.”

That is the way Filipino popular religiosity has the practice of pasing-tabi. For instance, before throwing water outside the window even when nobody is seen to be around, the typical Filipino will say, “Tabi-po!” (please stop aside). The practice reflects the belief that the unseen spirits can get wet and perhaps take revenge for the act.


Taray continues: “In general the Benguet people view death as a translocation of this life into the spirit world. It is seen as a shift from a personal’s earthly existence into a new life in the spirit world. It is believed that undergoing such a shift meant the dead needs the support and remembrance of the living relatives.”

Death, therefore, is not the end of life but the beginning of a new life. Traditional catholic practice considers the day of one’s death as that person’s dies natalis or birthday, where one is born into eternal life. The preface of the requiem Mass asserts this belief: “Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.”

We hear consistent reports saying that, shortly before a sick person dies, departed relatives appear in order to fetch her. The word in Tagalog is  sundo  , as fetching somebody for a trip.


While western Christians offer flowers, the Asian of various religions have food offerings for the spirits and the departed, An essential part of the Benguet Kankanaey rituals involve killing of animals (chicken, pig, cow, carabao and dog), and the offering of tapey or rice wine to the deities, spirits and ancestors. Taray continues: “A majority of rituals are performed to the spirit of deceased kin, to ward off sickness or avert bad luck in farming or in mining.” The rituals illustrate the belief that the departed continue living in the other world.

Food offerings are not only for the indigenous people because Filipino Christians, especially in the grassroots level, continue the indigenous practice. The three biggest Philippine languages have their terms for food offering:  alay  in Tagalog,  halad in Cebuano Visayan and  atang in Ilocano. During wakes, on can find usually a plate with food for the dead. The food offering can also be found on the family altar which has holy picture and statues. According to Taray, the Kankanaeys “believe in sustaining and maintaining the needs of their spirit-relative during her or his journey by offering money, food clothing, tapey rice wine and providing working tools with which the departed will continue working in the next life. The offerings also give the departed the moral strength and the emotional support to go on till he or she reaches the ancestral home.”

A common Filipino practice is that a person who travel takes along things as courier or as a messenger. In the squatter areas of MetroManila, I have seen the practice of the bereaved putting some things inside the coffin with the conviction that the departed will take them to the next world.

In the cursory comparison above between the traditional religion and the Filipino lowland Christianity, the contrast is not like between white and black. The contrast on the part of Christians has gradations, that is, from Christian in dress but the spirit of tradition to being totally westernized in Christian practices. But if the ordinary Filipino Christian is to be taken as an average Filipino living a popular religiosity , this group certainly reflects the spirit of traditional religion.


The foregoing phenomena reflect the Christian doctrine of the communion of saints, which is mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed. It means the spiritual solidarity between the faithful on earth, the souls in purgatory and the saints in heaven – all members of the mystical body with Christ as the head. While Jesus Christ is the only mediator, worship (latria) is given to God alone while the saints are given honor (dulia). And with only the canonized and beatified can be honored universally, there is no prohibition in asking the help from non-canonized departed relatives.

Because of the similarity between traditional religion and Christianity, the indigenous people found no difficult in accepting Christianity. The Spanish missionaries, for example, substituted the ancestor veneration with veneration of saints. Even if the Filipino indigenous people accepted Christianity, the inspiration continued the spirit of traditional religion. And one finds that even in MetroManila. The foregoing model would be a dynamic equivalence or adaptation.

How does one look theologically at the Filipino practices about the dead? The pre-Vatican II Theology looked at the rest of the world from the viewpoint of scholastic-inspired theology. That is why, after a long-simmering controversy between the followers of the famous Jesuit, Matteo Ricci and his opponents, Pope Clement XI in 1704 condemned the Chinese veneration to ancestors and to Confucius. However, Pope Pius XII revoked this prohibition in 1939. So, today, Chinese Catholics have no qualms in offering incense sticks to their departed even during Holy Mass.


Another theological model is to look at other cultures as preparatio evangelica, as preparation for the gospel. Some Church Fathers considered Greek culture and writings like the Old testament wich find their fulfillment in Christianity. For example the Roman missal has the sequence entitled Dies Irae  , a thirteenth century latin poem used for Requiem Masses. It still found in the Liturgy of the Hours. A part of it reads:  Dies irae, dies ila / solvet saeclum in favilla, / teste David cum Sybylla. (The day of wrath, that dreadful day / Shall the whole world in ashes lay. / As David and the Sybil say.) The sibyls (from the Greek, sybilla, were the women (in the mythology) who prophesied as some (mitical) holy sites like Delpi. The medieval theologians put the sibyls in the same level as David and as Old Testament counterparts in prophesying the Last Judgment.

The  ancient Church Fathers gave Christian interpretation to Homer and Plato. Socrates was considered a type of Christ. The writings of Virgil were considered as non-Jewish counterpart of the Old Testament. If the Fathers looked at Greek culture as old Testament which finds fulfillment in Christ and the New Testament, might the same ay of thinking be on the culture of traditional religion?

Hoe ever, a further development has been to have another theological model, namely the incarnation. In this model, humanity and divinity have a mutual give and take. Christianity then takes a position not as a teacher but as a dialogue partner. Both partners stand as equal. Vatican II (AdGentes,10) states: “If the Church is to be in a position to offer all men the mystery of salvation and the life brought by God, then it must implant itself among all these groups in the same way that Christ, by His incarnation, committed Himself to the particular social and cultural circumstances of the men among whom He lived.”

Pope John Paul II in Redemptoris Missio (no.56) writes that, in interreligious dialogue, both partners must be open to each other for mutual enrichment: “Those engaged in this dialogue must be consistent with their own religion traditions and convictions, and be open to understanding those of the other party without pretense or close-mindedness, but with truth, humility and frankness, knowing that dialogue can enrich each other.”

If Christianity seriously takes interreligious dialogue, then the voice of indigenous people and their practices must also be studied. The foregoing ideas point to a direction which has to be mined.

One response to “Popular religiosity in the Philippines

  1. Thank you for posting this piece. Very helpful and informative. If only we learn to direct our religious fervor towards national unity then we can achieve progress.

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