A sea of heaving, towel-waving humanity swarmed a black image of a cross-bearing Jesus Christ in Manila on Tuesday as the Catholic faithful joined one of the nation’s largest religious festivals.
In a frenzied display of religious fervor, men, women and children climbed over heads and shoulders and flung themselves at the centuries-old Black Nazarene that they say is miraculous.
Devotees pulled on stout ropes to move the carriage forward as the procession drew more than half a million people wearing maroon and yellow shirts and waving towels while chanting “Viva” (“Long live”), Manila police said.
The image was passed through streets of old Manila lined with bystanders on Tuesday afternoon en route to its home in the Quiapo Church, the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene, in the lengthy traslacion or procession that usually takes 20 hours or more.
“It is really tough climbing to get to the Nazarene. I get squished, and people step on my face. But I have a devotion,” Honey Pescante, a 24-year-old housewife from Bataan province, told Agence France-Presse.
The Philippines is Asia’s Catholic bastion with a flock of more than 80 million. Spain colonized the archipelago in the 16th century and spread the faith. The wooden Black Nazarene was brought to Manila by missionaries in 1606 and is believed to have survived calamities.
A devotee for 30 years, 61-year-old Julio Castillo watched from the sidelines of the procession Tuesday after both his feet were fractured in a motorcycle accident last month, leaving him in a wheelchair.
‘Test of faith’
“I came here because this is my devotion. I hope my family will have good health and a prosperous life, that we will have no illness and I will heal,” he said.
More than 700 people were injured in Tuesday’s procession, one of them with a suspected cracked spine in a fall while attempting to climb onto the carriage, the Philippine National Red Cross said.
Pilgrims risk life and limb to touch the icon with towels believing the Black Nazarene has miraculous powers that will be transferred to the cloth. In 2016, two participants were killed.
The near-suicidal displays of devotion have drawn frequent criticism in the Philippines, with some saying it resembles pagan worship.
But sociologists say many devotees regard the event as a test of faith.
“Filipino Catholicism follows the belief that the presence of a higher being can only be made real through the body and via the material,” Maria Yohana Frias, an ethnology researcher at the National Museum of the Philippines, said.
“Enduring a challenging procession where devotees walk barefoot is also seen as a test of faith for some.”
This year’s procession came as the Catholic Church voiced criticism to the killing of thousands of people under President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war.
Millions in Quiapo
The Philippine National Police (PNP) estimated the number of devotees at Quiapo church at more than four million on Tuesday afternoon.
As the traslacion headed toward Carlos Palanca Street, the crowd estimate stood at 520,000 as of 2 p.m.
The image of the Nazarene left the Quirino Grandstand at about 5 a.m. en route to the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene.
Major roads were closed to allow the procession to pass through unhampered.
‘Lead Pinoys to Christ’ – Tagle
During Mass at midnight ahead of the traslacion, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle urged devotees to lead Filipinos to Jesus Christ.
“Let us carry our countrymen to Jesus,” he said in his homily during the Mass at Quirino Grandstand in Rizal Park.
The Mass was concelebrated by Msgr. Hernando Coronel and the Papal Nuncio to the Philippines, Archbishop Gabriele Giordano Caccia.
“Let us not forget our countrymen who are victims of recent typhoons and wars,” Tagle said
The archbishop also warned Filipinos to be vigilant against greed of power.
“We were born without power, and when we die, we will have no power as well. Live without being greedy for power, and you will be a real person,” he said.
Tagle urged the faithful to become an instrument of God and to look out for the poor.
“Let us become an instrument of life for others,” he added.
The cardinal also reminded the devotees on the true meaning of Traslacion, and urged them to revive their faith and stop living “false lives.”
“Traslacion sends us a message to not give up because Jesus is with us. Let us hold onto out faith, if we are lost, let’s try to find our way back,” he said.
“A true believer does not play god. A true person treats others well,” he added.
On top of the 700 treated by the Red Cross, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) reported that it had provided medical assistance to 334 devotees for various injuries: 238 of them for hypertension, 82 for various ailments, and 10 for minor injuries.
Four pregnant women were also treated by personnel from the MMDA Road Emergency Group from January 7 up to the morning of January 9 before the traslacion.
Nineteen-year-old Ma. Remedios Mendoza fainted after a male devotee accidentally elbowed her stomach while she was trying to inch her way to touch the 50-meter rope that pulled the andas or carriage of the Nazareno.
She lost consciousness, and other devotees did not notice her and even stepped on her body. Good Samaritans pulled her and rushed her to Red Cross personnel.
The fences of the Intramuros Golf Course were used by male devotees to relieve themselves, and gave a stench.
The decorative greenery at the center island were also destroyed by the devotees who stepped on them while trying to reach the andas.
WITH RAADEE S. SAUSA, JING VILLAMENTE, JAMES GALVEZ AND ASHLEY ERIKA JOSE