The church, its influence and cultural importance.
When it comes to the matter of religion, the Philippines certainly stand out from the rest of the entirety of Asia. According to statistics, 86% of all Filipinos are Roman Catholic and 8% of the population belongs to other Christian denominations, including Lutheran churches (source: asiasociety.org). There is no other Asian country with a higher percentage of Christians among its people. Historically, this can be explained by the long-lasting occupation of the Filipino archipelago by the Spanish, who first began Christianization in 1565, which continued for more than 300 years. But what influence does this have on the culture today? And how can it be perceived in everyday life? Well… To be honest, that is a difficult question to answer. Due to the short period of time I stayed in this country and my personal cultural connotations (both positive and negative), my overview of the local culture, its unique habits, traditions and beliefs is still very limited. I can only recount my impressions from within these boundaries. Thus, it is important to remember that the following report consists of observations from my personal point of view. In my experience, the church, especially the Roman Catholic institutions, have a great influence on this society. First of all, churches are omnipresent. Often small independent Christian communities share buildings with cafes, shops and restaurants, where they maintain chapels and other facilities. Also, gigantic churches can be found in Naga city, for instance, the large, dark-brown and gold Cathedral in downtown Naga and the big white and blue Basilica, located a little more outside of town. Furthermore, opposite of the Cathedral, very close to where we volunteers live, one can find the enormous, segregated complex of the archdiocese of Caceres, where the current archbishop R. Tirona resides. In my opinion, these status symbols perfectly portray the importance of the church in this city and – presumably – likewise in the rest of the country. Furthermore, there is an abundance of religious institutions, dedicated to serve a specific social purpose, which (in Germany) people would usually expect to be run by a government. Yet in the Philippines Christian organizations take that kind of social responsibility in many cases. After all, all of our current partners are run by religious people. The Missionaries of the Poor, whom I work with, are after all the Missionaries of the Poor. The Fatima Center Integrated Farming School and orphanage is run by nuns. Our newest partner, the J. Gualandi School for the Hearing Impaired, a school for deaf and mute children, is equally facilitated by an order of Christian sisters. And we already encountered or heard of various other religious groups operating other social institutions such as a public school, a hospital or a residential home for sexually abused children. Moreover, these facilities do not only co-exist. As I have experienced, religious groups know of one another and maintain strong connections and friendships among its members. They certainly also support each other’s work but how in particular, I do not know. In any case, these organizations are closely connected and form some sort of social network which the members of all social levels are constantly aware of. One day, a woman came to the Missionaries of the Poor apostolate and asked for food because her husband was sick and could not work. She was not sent away and I was assured this happens a lot. My impression is that acts of kindness like these are one reason why the church plays such an enormous role in the social life of so many people. They help and many people appreciate that. On top of that regions in the Philippines have their own Christian patron saint, whom they idolize. Here in the Bicol region this would be Mary, the mother of Jesus, or – as she is referred to here – “nuestra senora de Penafrancia” or simply “Ina”, which means as much as “mother”. Every year in the beginning of September, the Penafrancia Festival is celebrated in Naga city, which means a time of prayer to the patron saint lasting for nine days, a so called “novena”, is being held. A small statue, about 50 cm in height, triangular in silver and gold, represents the patron saint Ina herself. Literally millions of people from all over the Philippines come to the Bicol region, to Naga, in order to pray and honor Ina. Every day at every full hour different preachers hold masses in the downtown Cathedral, where the image is displayed. But the two highlights of the celebrations are two parades in the beginning and at the end of the novena. The first one, the “Traslacion procession” traditionally takes place on a Friday. On that day a cheerful, colorful, musical but also praying crowd accompanies the image of Ina from the Basilica to the Cathedral. The second one, the “Fluvial procession” consequently happens nine days later on a Saturday afternoon, where Ina is placed on a large boat on the Naga River – alongside countless colorful boats full of young men – and shipped back to the Basilica while thousands upon thousands of people on either side of the river are cheering and singing. We were part of the crowds at both parades and attended church during the novena. I have to say, it was one of the most fascinating, intimidating and astonishing experiences of my entire life. At last, I would like to include some of my personal thoughts about this topic. When I was invited to the 37th birthday party of the superior of the Missionaries of the Poor, it turned out that quite a number of local politicians were present as well, among them the mayor of Naga city. He held a speech, was thankful and happy. The friendship between the mayor and the superior of MoP made me think about the connection between church and politics. And I asked myself this question: What chances of success would an atheist or a member of another religion have if he or she was a candidate running for a political office, such as the mayor’s, in this society? Now this is my personal opinion: I believe that these people would not go very far in their political career, if at all they had one. Why? The members of a democratic society want their politicians to represent their beliefs and if 96% of a society is Christian, the answer to the question which candidate this vast majority would prefer is quite clear. To be honest, there is nothing wrong with that, I think. We, also desire our German democracy to be representative. Apparently, this includes 12,5% of blown-up nationalism but that is another story. The Christian and Catholic church pervades the Filipino culture like veins and arteries pervade the human body. Whether it represents the heart, too, I am not sure. But what I do know is this: The largest chunk of Filipino society is Christian and many, many people express their beliefs actively by attending church services, supporting/donating to religious institutions, praying as they begin or end a meal or a long journey or simply by wearing jewelry with religious symbols. This matters to the people here and it is clearly visible every day.