A dazzling display of faith and tradition was seen on Friday when millions of barefoot devotees followed the venerated image of the Black Nazarene in a procession that lasted well into the night.
Church officials expected at least 10 million people would turn up for the annual feast of the Nazarene, but crowd estimate was pegged at 5.5 million, almost half of the estimated 10 million who participated in last year’s Traslacion.
The procession, which started at Rizal Park (Luneta in Manila), was delayed because throngs of barefoot devotees surged toward the centuries-old image when it was removed from the altar after Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle concluded his liturgy at 6:20 a.m.
The Philippine Red Cross estimated that at least 5.5 million people joined the procession, the ceremonial transfer of the Black Nazarene image to its sanctuary —the St. John the Baptist Parish Church or Quiapo Church.
Millions of barefoot devotees followed the venerated image through Manila in a loud, heaving paroxysm of religious fervor.
In fervent displays of devotion, huge crowds of men, women and children chanted “Viva!” (Long live!) and twirled white handkerchiefs at the Black Nazarene, with some hurling themselves at the miraculous statue for good luck.
“The Lord is my healer,” Lina Javal, 58, declared after waiting in line for hours to kiss the life-sized ebony statue, showing the healed incision from throat surgery she underwent last month.
“It’s an extraordinary feeling, it’s like the Holy Spirit is entering my body,” said the clerk from nearby Laguna province.
The mammoth procession crawled at a near-snail’s pace as devotees risked life and limb for the privilege of pulling the fat rope that moved the float forward.
A devotee died from heart attack and more than 600 others were treated for various injuries.
Renato Gurion, 44, a rice trader in Sampaloc, Manila, was declared dead at the Manila Doctors Hospital.
Gurion was a member of Hijos de Nazareno-Nuestra Padre Jesus Nazareno, a group tapped to secure the carriage carrying the Black Nazarene. He collapsed on the carriage two hours after the procession left Rizal Park.
Many Filipinos believe the statue holds miraculous healing powers and make lifetime vows to join the annual parade, often wearing T-shirts emblazoned with an image of Christ crowned in thorns.
“The brand of religious devotion that we see in Filipino Catholicism is based on a very strong desire of the majority of our people for a more immediate and direct access to divine help or power,” Manuel Victor Sapitula, a sociology professor at the University of the Philippines, said.
“That is why it is sought through physical touch, sound, bodily experience, or any combination of these,” he added.
“I pray that the Nazarene continues watching over my grandson, that he is kept healthy,” Manila laundrywoman Imelda Santiago, 62, told Agence France-Presse.
She carried the two-year-old boy, who is blind in his right eye, to the parade, shielding him from the rain with a blanket.
Eight in 10 of the Philippines’ 100 million people are Catholics, and the Black Nazarene festival is a display of the vibrance of the religion ahead of the visit of Pope Francis which begins on January 15.
First brought to Manila by Augustinian priests from Mexico in 1607, decades after the archipelago was colonized by Spain, the Nazarene statue is believed to have acquired its color after it was partially burnt when the galleon carrying it caught fire.
Construction worker Angelo Pamarca, 30, walked an hour to join the procession with his six-year-old daughter perched on his shoulders.
“I ask the Black Nazarene to forgive my many sins and give me strength to resist temptation,” Pamarca said.
Aileen Amandy, 48, joined the parade with her teenage daughter to seek divine intervention in helping her children complete their studies.
“He always grants my prayers,” Amandy said, crediting the Black Nazarene with healing a son suffering from high fever and convulsions, and keeping another son, a policeman, safe from harm.
Supt. Joel Colonel, District Deputy Director for Operations of the Manila Police District, said this year’s Nazarene Mass was more solemn compared to last year’s.
“The people were more disciplined and more organized this year,” he added.
Colonel explained that the group designated to secure the carriage of the Black Nazarene did their tasks well.
“They understood what they need to do, so there was no rushing or something towards the crowd,” he said.
Colonel added that the vigil held at the Rizal Park since Saturday night was peaceful and orderly because of the presence of teams from the Philippine Army, Philippine National Police, Metro Manila Development Authority and Philippine Coast Guard.