The Philippines were under Spanish rule from the early 16th century until late in the 19th century. The Spanish brought their Roman Catholic religion with them, and the local population converted to Catholicism. Today, 95% of Filipinos are devoted Catholics.
Holy Week, the week before Easter Sunday, is celebrated with many religious rites and rituals. Churches are decorated in preparation for re-enactments of the suffering and death by crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Holy Thursday and Good Friday.
In the city of San Fernando, capital of the economically challenged province of Pampanga, thousands of young men in the barangays (barrios) will flagellate (scourge or whip) themselves in an agonizing, bloody religious rite on Holy Thursday and Good Friday.
A religious statue in the San Fernando Cathedral holds a barquillios, pieces of bamboo strapped together by a braided rope. The barquillios will be used by thousands of young, male devotees on Holy Thursday and Good Friday to flagellate themselves or others in their barangay.
Groups of shirtless, hooded, young, male flagellants with simulated crowns of thorns on their heads, walk barefoot single file in the blazing sun approximately 1 to 2 miles to their church enduring scorching heat and overwhelming humidity.
Other young men make the same agonizing, 1- to 2-mile walk to their barangay church carrying a cross weighing approximately 150 lbs. These cross-carriers are called magdarame. Others accompany them in case of collapse.
Magdarame and flagellants alike wear a black hood called a kaparosa in order to humble and diminish themselves by obscuring their identities when performing this form of penance called penitensiya.
A long-handled paddle with sharp glass shards on its surface is used to enhance the wounds and bleeding on this magdarame’s back. Those who flagellate others are called manabad.
This magdarame rests on his knees for a few moments allowing himself to be severely scourged by a manabad with a blood-drenched barquillios. Magdarames carry crosses to dramatize the sacrifice Christ made for others.
This hand-sized wooden pad has three rows of sharp glass shards used to slash the backs of devotees thereby making the wounds more severe and drawing more blood. The manabad who will wield the panabad is from the same barangay as the devotee.
The panabad is often used at the beginning of this religious procession so that the suffering endured will be intensified and the amount of blood drawn will be greater making the sacrifice more worthy.
Their backs weeping blood, flagellants trudge through the streets under the blazing sun asking for the forgiveness of sins committed; the strength to fulfill pledges made (panada); or giving thanks to God for illnesses or injuries cured.
A razor blade is another method used to draw more blood from the back of a flagellant. The Catholic Church vehemently objects to these extreme types of rituals, yet the people in this area continue to passionately participate in them.
Flagellation combined with the drawing of blood produces results that are shocking and stunning in the extreme. The people stick to these practices, though, believing they are the physical manifestations of their belief in their faith.
This novice with his clean, new barquillios takes a few moments to reflect on his pledge (panada) and to pray for the strength to fulfill the commitment he has made before the ordeal of his long, single-file walk to the church in his barangay.
When the flagellants and magdarame reach their destination, they are flogged yet again by banabads, this time with greater strength and intensity as they are motionless now, thereby providing a stationery target for those scourging them.
At their destination, flagellants are also beaten and kicked to the ground where they roll on the rough pavement that is burning from the heat and intensity of the sun. They continue to be brutally beaten until they lie spread-eagled and still.
Meanwhile, inside the churches of the barangay, the parishioners have covered statues of the crucified Christ that hang on the walls with blood-red robes signifying the agony, suffering, and death of Christ from crucifixion.
And just outside the entrance to that church, a magdarame wearing a similar blood-red robe kneels and prays after carrying his 150-pound cross for 2 hours to his destination.
Another flagellant kneels and kisses the floor at the entrance to his church. The people of Pampanga believe these extreme religious rituals are spiritual sacrifices that provide a source of community solidarity and strength in this economically deprived area.
This flagellant has completed his panata and apparently is completely depleted of strength. He clings to the metal fence at the entrance of his church for support. His bloodied barquillios is slung over his shoulder and rests on his flayed back.
The local people, including this young man, watch with great concentration as friends and relatives participate in these rites. The Philippine government condemns these practices, but yet no legislation exists prohibiting them.
These religious rituals take place at the hottest time of the year (March/April), at the hottest time of the day (mid-day) and with suffocating humidity. Devotees walk barefoot and their feet are seared by the burning pavement adding to their agony.
On Good Friday, street plays called Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) are staged with local amateur actors portraying the passion and crucifixion of Christ with a chosen few playing the role of Christ with real-life, non-lethal crucifixions.
Make-shift Golgothas, the site where Christ was crucified, are prepared in the barangays for the upcoming crucifixions that will be re-enacted on Good Friday at the conclusion of the Via Crucis.
Just prior to the crucifixion of Jesus, Mary, the mother of Jesus, along with Mary Magdalene, weep and attempt to tend to the suffering Jesus as part of the well-rehearsed, Via Crucis street pageant.
Jesus hangs crucified on the cross after his hands and feet have been hammered to the cross with slender, 4-inch, stainless steel, sterilized nails. These nails “live” in a small bottle containing alcohol whenever they are not being used for crucifixions.
The crowd gasps loudly and cries out in disbelief, as those being crucified scream with pain when local men playing the role of Roman soldiers perform the actual nailing of both hands and feet to the cross.
This will be the 27th crucifixion for 52-year old Ruben Enaje, popular crucifixee from San Pedro Cutud. Seen here rehearsing for the Via Crucis and his crucifixion the next day, Ruben stated, “When I am up there on the cross, I feel very close to God.”
Ruben screamed with pain as locals playing Roman soldiers first pressed the nails into his palms and then hammered them into his hands. A wireless microphone carried his voice to loudspeakers so everyone watching his crucifixion could hear.
A foot-rest (suppedaneum) is attached to the cross for the purpose of taking the crucifixee’s weight off his wrist. Ruben’s hands and feet were both nailed to his cross.
Crucifixion is a deliberately slow and excruciatingly painful execution. Ruben began his annual crucifixion rite to show gratitude to God for the “miracle” of his survival after he fell from the 3rd floor of a building where he was working.
After hanging on his cross for 15 minutes, a crucifixee indicated he wanted to end his ordeal. Screaming with pain as the nails were removed from his hands and feet he later said, “We grew up in this tradition, and nothing can stop us.”
Medical personnel carry the bodies of crucifixees down to a temporary tented medical facility complete with emergency medical vehicles, professional medical personnel, temporary beds, water, and medical supplies of all kinds.
On Good Friday, after the rituals have finished, a flagellant removes his kaparosa and rests. He will most likely participate again next year in this unique brand of Phililppine Catholicism that seems inexplicable and bizarre to many not from this area.