A guide for reflection in the Holy Week and beyond
Palm Sunday is when Filipino-Catholics re-enact Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem with a procession. As the officiating priest and the congregation make their way towards the church, and all the way to altar, they wave ornately woven branches of palm, or the palaspas, just as the men, women and children of Jerusalem had done to welcome the Christ on the back of a borrowed donkey’s colt.
In more traditional towns around the country, women even line the procession’s route with heirloom aprons or tapis, and huge pieces of cloth; while children dressed as angels sing “Hosanna” and strew flowers with every step.
Once blessed, the palaspas are taken home by the faithful, many of whom place them on altars, or hang them above doorways and windows. And although the symbolism of the custom is to welcome Christ Jesus into their homes, many Filipinos believe the palaspas
have the power to banish evil spirits, avert lightning, and prevent fires.
“Blessed palms and candles can be kept in the icon corner of the house as [an]evloghia
[meaning blessing], but they cannot avert lightning,” chuckled Fr. Anton Pascual, president of Radio Veritas and executive director of Caritas Manila, when The Sunday Times Magazine (STM) visited the well-known priest to ask his guidance in preparing readers for the coming Holy Week.
Eager to reach out to as many Catholics as possible, Fr. Anton willingly took the lead, and decided that a quick look back at Theology lessons, a brief discussion of current events, and a guide to reflection can help make for a more meaningful remembrance of Jesus’ passion and death in these very interesting and trying times.
Sunday Times Magazine (STM): What is the significance of Palm Sunday?
Fr. Anton Pascual: Palm Sunday is an important part of the Lenten season. This feast marks the victorious entry of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem to mark the beginning of the climax, the apex, the summit of Christ’s life mission—the Paschal Mystery. He will enter Jerusalem for our salvation and it will only happen through his sacrifices, death and resurrection. This is the anticipated victory of the Prince of Peace—the anticipating victory of the Word in the celebration of Palm Sunday.
That’s why we wave the palaspas (palm leaves), we spread clothes on the road where his route will take place. Jesus, meanwhile, rode on a donkey, symbolizing that he is the Messiah who will save us.
(Editor’s note: Traditionally, entering the city on a donkey symbolizes an arrival to bring peace, rather a war-waging king arriving on a horse.)
STM: From your ministry, do many Filipinos still know the significance of Palm Sunday?
Fr. Anton: I don’t think so because basically not all Catholics go to church on a regular basis these days. There are only 15 to 20 percent Filipino Catholics who do so, meaning once a week.
Eighty to 85 percent are “unchurched” as we say, meaning Catholics who don’t go to church weekly. Of course, they lack knowledge on the teachings of the church. They are those with this concept that Palm Sunday is just about bringing the palaspas to Sunday Mass then placing them near the window of their house to serve as protection from lightning or natural calamities.
Sabi ko sa kanila, ako si Kapitan Kidlat at hindi totoo iyon (I told them, I am Kapitan Kidlat [a Filipino superhero], and what they believe is not true).
These 80 to 85 unchurched Catholics are those who go to church only for KBL or Kasal, Binyag, Libing (Wedding, Baptismal, Internment). They go to church when there are matching, hatching and dispatching. And this is a very alarming, and very sad fact.
STM: Beyond Palm Sunday, what do you advise Filipino Catholics to reflect on for this year’s remembrance of Holy Week?
Fr. Anton: With all the things that are happening to our country, for Semana Santa 2015, we should reflect on the justice of God. The justice of God is different to how we define justice in the context of what is legal or to give what is due to others. Although this is also a part of what I will tell you, the justice of God is different in this way: In the history of the salvation of man in the Bible, justice is rooted in the fidelity of God. This is his fidelity to his covenant with man that was given first to Moses.
God is faithful and He is very concerned with us that even if we commit sin, He will be there and will forgive us. He even gave us His only son Jesus Christ who suffered, died and rise from the dead to fulfill his covenant to man.
He is faithful in his covenant to love us unconditionally. He loves us with an everlasting love. He remains consistent in his promise to love us despite our sins. We experience this in our personal life. He is still there to forgive us 70 times seven times like the symbol of the prodigal son, where the forgiving father waited for his son and forgave him when he came back to him.
We see here the fidelity of God and it’s good to reflect on how faithful our God is to us. Where do all these come from? As what Pope Francis had said, all these come from the mercy and compassion of God.
Since God is faithful and we worship a faithful God, we are challenged to reflect in the context of fidelity, and there are many branches in this fidelity of God: Honesty with oneself; fidelity in our responsibilities as a Christian and as a Filipino; and fidelity in a person’s responsibility to family, to his society, to his community and to his organization.
This Holy Week 2015 let us reflect on the context of what is happening to our life and to our country. Why is there still so much corruption, poverty, and chaos in the world? These are all rooted in justice because we betrayed our God, we turned our back to him, and we forgot to face our responsibilities to him, to ourselves, to our country and to others.
Fidelity has a deeper meaning in our spiritual life and we should reflect on it especially with what is happening now in our country and ourselves.
STM: What should Holy Week signify for Filipino-Catholics today?
Fr. Anton: Filipinos by nature are religious, and we have many traditions that we practice during the Lenten Season, especially the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
We also practice traditional rituals of Semana Santa like the Way of the Cross, spiritual pilgrimage, confession, listening to the Siyete Palabras (Seven Last Words), and the Bisita Iglesia. There is the traditional Huwebes Santo (Holy Thursday) where we witness the washing of the feet; Biyernes Santo (Good Friday) when we go to mass, join the procession, and listen to the Seven Last Words; Sabado de Glorya (Black Saturday) where we join the vigil until the Lord’s resurrection or the Easter Sunday. All these are part of our Catholic tradition.
But all of these should be rooted in the renewal of our fidelity to God and all our responsibilities in life. These should be the fruit of our immersion and participation in the tradition of Holy Week.
STM: Do you see the Lenten tradition of Filipino-Catholics practiced in daily living?
Fr. Anton: No. As they say, Filipino Catholics are religious but not spiritual, we are religious but not evangelized. This means—if I may give the distinction—religious in the context of external traditions, but they should not remain as an external observance. These traditions should transform us, and this is the challenge of all these preparations for the resurrection or what we call Metanoia.
This is the challenge of the whole Lenten Season and Holy Week. Jesus Christ was able to conquer death and became victorious 2,000 years ago. He emerged victorious from sin, from evil and from death when he rose again. It was the victory that ended all victories, but this victory is not for God but for us.
We should also be victorious against evil, corruption, poverty and violence in life, and that will only happen if we have true metanoia.
To have true metanoia is not only to be sorry for our sins, but everything I outlined is part of it. It is not only about performing spiritual rituals, not only about confessing our sins, but beyond all these.
Metanoaia is a personal and social transformation of life wherein we will experience the ultimate victory of Christ—the victory of light against darkness; the victory of love against evil doings; the victory of God over the betrayal of sins. This is the perfect fruit of his victory until it can be seen that Jesus also reigns in our lives.
Just like what St. Paul said in Galatia 2:20: “It is not I who lives, but it is Christ who lives in me.”
It is a process, not an instant happening in our lives. It is a process of changing our lives in the life of Christ.
STM: Many Catholics today express their faith in personal ways and some even veer away from praying traditional prayers, and instead “pray from their hearts.” Is this acceptable? Say, no longer praying the Act of Contrition after asking for forgiveness?
Fr. Anton: The prayers that we have are standard prayers that were studied by the church.
They have undergone a long tradition and process used by the church to guide us. So there should be a combination of prayers, and there should be a balance. We are now in the era of individualism—rugged individualism that we want to apply in all aspects of our lives. But sometimes individualism becomes relativistic—“kanya-kanya”—that sometimes, it is no longer in accordance to the objective truth.
We respect the personal conscience but this should not be contrary to the common good that has been taught by the church through the centuries or what we call tradition.
At the same time we don’t live alone. We’re part of a Christian community; of a church that has a standard in order to guide our people in the renewal and growth of our faith. Even Christ founded the iglesia or the church in order that we will be guided and our faith will grow because of our Christian community
STM: Looking back at Pope Francis’ visit in January, how were Filipino Christians affected?
Fr. Anton: It was an extraordinary, spirit-filled event in the Christian community. The visit of Pope Francis created a Pope Francis effect that affected not only the Catholics but also non-believers like our Muslim brothers. We believe his visit affected change in many Filipinos and they now feel the embodiment of mercy and compassion—love, concern and true servanthood. This Francis effect should stay with us for a long time and remain with us forever.
STM: What did you feel when after almost a week of the triumphant visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines, the Mamasapano massacre hit the news.
Fr. Anton: It was very sad that only after a few short days of the Pope’s January 25, visit, the Mamasapano brutality in Maguindanao exploded. We witnessed here the lack of real concern of government. Actually, we can say that the government committed a severe shortcoming in this incident and we charge the major responsibility and accountability to our President because he had the power to do what should be done: Consider the life of every Filipino—soldier or Muslim—because they are all Filipinos.
STM: Is there a message or statement from the Vatican regarding the Mamasapano tragedy?
Fr. Anton: So far I don’t have any information but I believe that the Pope is in grief over what happened. We see here that evil is alive, and we need to be proactive because the world is full of evil doings. The power of principalities, according to St. Paul, is all around us that it spread destructions and violence and sufferings.
That is why it is important that we believers should be smarter to overcome or convert these bad elements of the society.
STM: What is your personal reflection on the visit of Pope Francis?
Fr. Anton: I had a renewal of my priestly commitment. I’ve been a priest for the last 28 years. His visit really resonated with the priesthood. The Pope is a powerful and true witness of God and I saw in him what it means to be a servant of God, and that is what I want as a priest, to be a servant of God.
Just as what Mark 10:45 said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Servant leadership. And I saw that in Pope Francis. He inspired me to live my life in the spirit of servanthood.
STM: What should Filipinos pray for this Holy Week for our country?
Fr. Anton: We should pray for peace. Peace is not the absence of war; it is the work of justice. Let us be honest to God and all our responsibilities in life, especially to others. And if we do that, I believe our lives will change for the good, and eventually there will be change in our country.