Poong Hesus Nazareno at the Shrine

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Today in Manila, all roads lead to Quiapo.

Every January 9, the Traslación of the Black Nazarene (commemorating the “solemn transfer” of the image’s copy from Quirino Grandstand to Quiapo) makes its way along the streets of Manila through a 6-kilometer-long procession. An estimated number of 3 million people are expected to participate and witness the event, which may last about 22 hours as in previous years. The traslación is undoubtedly the biggest one-day public display of popular religiosity in the Philippines, or perhaps, the whole world.

The Black Nazarene ( in Filipino: Poóng Itím na Nazareno, Hesus Nazareno) is a life-sized image of a dark-skinned, kneeling Jesus Christ carrying the Cross enshrined in the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, Manila.

Thousands of devotees of the Black Nazarene, some wearing maroon shirts and carrying white towels, and barefooted have started the hours-long journey through the streets of Manila early morning today. The Black Nazarene will be accompanied by throngs of people with many trying to climb onto the carossa carrying the miraculous image. Devotees scramble to touch the statue as part of their prayer and expression of devotion.

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Many devotees of Poong Hesus Nazareno, especially those coming from Parañaque, Las Piñas and Cavite area, pass by the shrine on the way to Quiapo. Many of them in barefoot wear maroon t-shirt with the image of Poong Hesus Nazareno, carry white towels and maroon handkerchief with the image of  Poong Hesus Nazareno and some carry the statue of Poong Hesus Nazareno. They say a little prayer in front of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help inside the shrine and the shrine’s statue of crucified Christ at the entrance of the shrine, before they continue their journey to Quiapo.

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We don’t have a statue of Poong Hesus Nazareno in the shrine but we have the statue of the dark skinned Christ crucified on the cross at the entrance of the shrine. This statue is easily the most favorite statue in the shrine. Many devotees crowd the statue, touching, wiping and kissing it. Many can be seen crying in front of the statue. At least every six months, the shrine needs to repaint the statue because the paint has faded after all the wiping and kissing of the statue by the thousands of devotees.

For many devotees in the shrine, the statue is a tangible representation of our Lord Jesus whom they can touch and kiss. When they touch and kiss the statue they believe that they already touch Jesus. And because they have touched him, they were able to bring to him their petitions and pleas. Perhaps, another reason for its popularity is because the devotees can see their own sufferings in the sufferings of the crucified Christ. Because of this, they feel that Christ on the cross identifies with their own sufferings.

Watching the devotees wiping the statue of the crucified Christ with their handkerchief or bandanna then wiping it on themselves reminds me of the story of Veronica who met Jesus carrying the cross to Calvary. According to Church tradition, Veronica[1] was moved with pity when she saw Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha and gave him her veil that he might wipe his forehead. Jesus accepted the offering, held it to his face, and then handed it back to her—the image of his face was miraculously impressed upon Veronica’s veil.

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I believe that the experience of Veronica, encountering Jesus on his way to Calvary, is the same experience of the millions of devotees in the shrine and in Quiapo. When devotees wipe the statue of the crucified Christ in the shrine and Poong Hesus Nazareno in Quiapo, the crucified face of Christ becomes impressed upon their handkerchief or bandanna. Their handkerchief or bandanna bearing the crucified face of Christ becomes a great resource for them in their life-journey especially in their daily struggles and hardships. When devotees wiped their handkerchief or bandanna bearing the crucified face of Christ on their bodies, they experienced Jesus touching and embracing their tired and worn out bodies. They can sense Jesus’ solidarity and identification with their suffering and trials in life. This gives them the greatest hope to continue to face life’s difficulties and reach their aspirations because Christ has also experienced pain and suffering. Like Christ, they will also resurrect and emerge victorious amidst the seemingly insurmountable problems in life.

It is also important to remember that the celebration of the traslacion of Poong Hesus Nazareno still falls within the Christmas season. We are in the Wednesday after the Epiphany of Lord, which is part of the Christmas celebration. This means that the passion and suffering of Jesus cannot be separated from the incarnation of Christ–God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. When the Son of God became human, he was prepared to embrace our pain and suffering, including death. If we are to truly live the spirit of Christmas, therefore, we must also be prepared to identify with the mission of Jesus and follow Jesus’ words and deeds, which led to his suffering and death on the cross.

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[1]There is no reference to the story of St Veronica and her veil in the canonical Gospels. The closest thing in the gospel about Veronica is the miracle of the woman who was healed by touching the hem of Jesus’s garment (Luke 8:43–48)

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October at the Shrine

st-gerard

October is a month of giants in the church as well as for the shrine.

October begins with the commemoration of St. Thérése of Lisieux and ends with All Hallows Eve, the night of spirits who do not so much haunt streets as inspire hearts.  Spread throughout the month is the feast of: Francis of Assisi, who rebuilt the church and inspired centuries of holy souls; Teresa of Avila, mighty doctor of the church and reformer of the Carmelites; Anthony Claret, missionary, founder, archbishop of Cuba, and chaplain to the Queen of Spain; Simon, Jude, and Luke, apostles and evangelist; Ignatius of Antioch, one of our earliest bishops, a martyr in Rome; Margaret Mary Alacoque, Visitation contemplative, who with her Jesuit friend Claude La Colombière bequeathed the Sacred Heart devotion to the church.

October is also special for the shrine. The shrine celebrates the feast of St. Thérése in a special way since the Monastery and the Church were originally dedicated to St Teresa of the Child Jesus, the patroness of the missions. But as divine providence intervened, Mary Our Mother of Perpetual Help became the patron of the shrine.

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The whole month of October is also special for the shrine as it is Rosary month. During the whole month, the rosary is recited daily at the shrine. During the rosary, there is a meditation on the life of Mary especially about the lessons that we can derive from her life for us today.

On October 4th the shrine celebrates the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi.with a blessing of animals. After the morning mass, some devotees bring their beloved pets–dogs, cats, hamsters, bird, turtles and others for the blessing. This began in 2005. Since then it has become a yearly tradition in the shrine.

A big day in October is the celebration of the feast of St. Gerard Majella on October 16th.  St. Gerard was a Redemptorist brother who despite being always frail in health was so passionate in giving all his time and talents to the poor and in prayer to God.  He is the patron of pregnant mothers and children. After the morning mass, there is a blessing of pregnant mothers and children and the distribution of medals of St. Gerard for free.

We are grateful for the shining example and legacy the saints have left us.  In spite of their human weakness and shortcomings, they were able to fully maximize their potentials in service to God and to others.  This offers us hope that we too we can become saints if only we freely open ourselves to God’s power in our lives.  As Matthew Fox said:

“Saint applies to each of us. All who are attempting to imitate the Christ in their lives merit the title of ‘saint.’ Some do it more fully than others and are willing to let go of more to get the job done.”

Shrine of the Lay

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The Baclaran shrine joined the whole church in the Philippines in the annual celebration of the National Laity Week from September 22– 29, 2018. This coincides with the feast of San Lorenzo Ruiz our first Filipino lay saint. This week-long celebration is a celebration of  lay empowerment in the church. This year the highlight of the celebration is the critical role of the lay faithful in collaboration with the Clergy and Consecrated Persons in the building of the Church and in the transformation of present day Philippine society.

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The ministry at the shrine cannot be possible without the valuable work of the lay. We have lots of lay people working at the shrine, some are full-time and many are volunteers. Many of them bring and share to the shrine their talents and specialties out of their devotion to our Mother of Perpetual Help. Having freely received blessings from God through the Blessed Mother they freely share these blessings to others especially to fellow devotees.

Lay Missionary

The Redemptorist lay missionary are active partners in the various ministries of the shrine.   They fully and directly participate in the shrine apostolate.  Rejoicing in the vocation and mission of the laity the Shrine welcome them as co-workers in the task of evangelization in accordance with the charisms proper to them as lay people.  In the shrine, we affirm our commitment to lay-empowerment. They are different from the staff and volunteers as they are fully integrated into the mission and community life of the Baclaran Shrine community.   They are not just involved in administration and management of the different programs and services of the shrine but directly involved in the mission and community building.

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Staff

The shrine employs around 30 full-time staff and 20 more part-time and student workers.  They are part of the Redemptorist family working behind the scenes of the various ministries of the shrine.

All the services in the shrine and the smooth running of our houses would not have happened without our staff running our services.  We have young, competent, committed and happy social workers, and volunteers in the social services, carrying out dutifully their respective responsibilities with a sense of fulfillment and dedication. They have shared our dedication and commitment to the poor.

Our staff have tried to embody our charism and saw their work not just as work but their own small contribution to the exercise of the mission of the community.

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Volunteers

The Shrine is home to more than 500 volunteers helping in various programs and services of the shrine.  Most of the volunteers offered freely their time and effort first and foremost out of their devotion to our Mother and their strong sense of  service to others.

Despite the big number of volunteers, the shrine still needs volunteers.  With the big number of devotees, the many programs and services of the shrine can only run through the generous efforts of  many volunteers.

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If you have the heart of service and wish to express your affection to our Mother by joining our services, check out the different programs of the shrine and see where you can put to good use your talents.

If you want more information about volunteering at the shrine and wish to become a lay volunteer , you can go to our website.

A Shrine of Contemplation

shrine-of-contemplation

[H]er gaze is like the continuation of the Father’s gaze,
the Father who looked at her as a child and made her God’s Mother;
like the Son’s gaze from the cross, from where He made her our mother;
the same gaze with which she looks at us.
– Jorge Mario Bergoglio[1]

Many perceive the shrine as a busy shrine with people constantly coming and going, day and night. The shrine, however, can also become a quiet place and evoke an aura of stillness.  In the midst of the hustle and bustle, the traffic, the noise and pollution of Manila, Baclaran is a place that offers silence, a time to rejuvenate the soul, a venue to unleash the pains and stress of people who daily confront the struggles in life. The shrine is an oasis of prayer in the city as Jo-Me De la Peña Mamić writes, “I’m so glad I had a chance to visit the miraculous church of Baclaran. It is a great feeling and even if it’s crowded I felt peace and silence in my heart.”

To think that the shrine only comes alive on Wednesday, Sundays and special liturgical seasons, underestimate the number of people who come to the shrine on ordinary days. On ordinary days, there is no letup of people entering the shrine most often to pray silently in front of the icon and the tabernacle. While Wednesday is replete with collective prayer such as novena, silent and private prayer from intermittent devotees coming in and out of the shrine characterizes ordinary days.  Being a shrine and not a parish ensured that the shrine is quiet and empty most of the time on days except Wednesday and Sunday. This has contributed to the nurturing of a prayerful atmosphere.

Filipino sociologist Manuel Victor Sapitula interviewed Emily, a devotee, who explained that while she goes to the shrine every Wednesday, she would also come during “less busy” days like Tuesday or Thursday as well because she appreciated the solitude. She explains, “When you ask for something, it is better if you are just alone when talking to her [Virgin Mary]. I think that God can hear my prayers better if I pray by myself,” she claimed. Lastly, she recounted that there were times when she did not finish the novena prayers. At some point, she would stop participating and would pray in her own words. “I prefer that because I can really talk to her.”[2]

Many devotees find the solemn and sacred environment of the shrine uplifting to the spirits. A devotee, Carmen Torres Gutierrez comments on March 25, 2018,

After I attend mass at Baclaran, I would just sit at the edge of one of the pews of the church. Nothing special whatsoever… just so all my worries will disappear, then before I leave, I take a deep breath. I’m fine once again.[3]

Jomar Gabayeron also commented, “A very solemn and sacred church. Has a big space in my heart and plays a big role in my life.”[4] Likewise, Macky Cona commented, “It is a very solemn church which motivates us to pray harder!!!”[5]

Many times, we have been asked: Where is the Blessed Sacrament chapel in the shrine? I always reply that there is no chapel of the Blessed Sacrament because any chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, no matter how big it is, could never fit the constant influx of devotees that come to the shrine outside of the novena and mass hours.  No chapel of the Blessed Sacrament could adequately accommodate the sheer number of people who come and pray at the shrine. Thus, we always reply that the whole shrine is the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament.

Gazing

As the icon is positioned at the top of the tabernacle of the shrine, the experience of most devotees about the icon is that OMPH is gazing at them. This is particularly shared by Jhuzel Alarcon in a thanksgiving letter she wrote on August 1, 2015:

During those times when I had problems, it is you who I always come to. As I pray before you, you see everything that happened in my life, all the right and wrong things I have done. For the wrong things I have done I implored you to ask for mercy to the Lord on my behalf. I also ask for your help to guide me in straightening my life. You really straightened me because despite all the wrongs things I have done I graduated from college and was able to take the Board Exam … Thank you very much for your help and for interceding for me to our God. I offer my success to you Mother who have been with me in all the events of my life till now.

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At the same time, devotees gazed at the icon, pouring their hearts out. Charmaine writing in May 27, 2015 expressed her profound experience of gazing at the icon of OMPH

It’s been one year since I first gazed on your picture and prayed. In all of my life, that was the only time that I prayed as if there was no more tomorrow. I remembered how my tears flowed while looking at your picture. Now I give you thanks, a never ending gratitude for all the petitions that you granted and will grant in the future. Thank you very much.

For the past eighty-five years, the icon of OMPH enshrined high above the altar, has gazed upon the millions of devotees who visited and prayed at the shrine 24/7. Many devotees found comfort under the loving gaze of OMPH. As Mary gazed at the devotees she points them to Jesus as the path of their true salvation and peace. Mary’s gazing upon the devotees is ultimately to direct them to Jesus. As St. John Paul II states,

Mary lived with her eyes fixed on Christ, treasuring his every word: “She kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19; cf. 2:51). The memories of Jesus, impressed upon her heart, were always with her, leading her to reflect on the various moments of her life at her Son’s side.[6]

Similarly, Pope Francis when he was still Cardinal Bergoglio reflecting on Mary’s gaze connected it with God’s gaze:

Her gaze is like the continuation of the Father’s gaze, the Father who looked at her as a child and made her God’s Mother; like the Son’s gaze from the cross, from where He made her our mother; the same gaze with which she looks at us.

The then-Cardinal further describes the impact of this kind of gaze upon us:

The Virgin’s gaze helps us look at each other in a different way. We learn to be more human, because the Mother looks at us. To have that gaze that seeks to save, accompany and protect. We learn to see ourselves in her motherly gaze.[7]

While OMPH’s gaze is directed at the devotees and the world she points to Jesus whom she holds firmly with her left arm. By contemplating at the icon, devotees learn to ponder the meaning of discipleship in Jesus. This reflects what the CCC said about contemplation:

Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus. “I look at him and he looks at me”: this is what a certain peasant of Ars in the time of his holy curé used to say while praying before the tabernacle. This focus on Jesus is a renunciation of self. His gaze purifies our heart; the light of the countenance of Jesus illumines the eyes of our heart and teaches us to see everything in the light of his truth and his compassion for all men. Contemplation also turns its gaze on the mysteries of the life of Christ. Thus it learns the “interior knowledge of our Lord,” the more to love him and follow him.[8]

Contemplation

Despite the popularity of the novena, I see more and more devotees contemplating before the icon. Contemplation is the most effective way of praying with the Icon. Mary calls her devotees to enter into contemplative prayer as they gaze upon her. Contemplation comes from the Latin word contemplari which means “to gaze, observe, behold.”  To contemplate the icon is to be aware and to behold Mary and God’s love and presence.

Contemplation is entering into God’s presence where Mary and the saints are now residing. It is placing our lives into the life of God. It is finding our story in God’s story. Contemplation evokes a response of waiting, loving, trusting, and obeying. It is the same response that Mary made when the Angel Gabriel announced to her that she would be the mother of God, “Let it be done according to your will.” Contemplating the icon of Mary helps devotees to see what God desires of them—what His will is.

This is the experience of many devotees who contemplate before the icon for hours on ordinary days. The devotees reflect the attitude of which the CCC describes of the faithful who enters into contemplative prayer:

Contemplative prayer is the prayer of the child of God, of the forgiven sinner who agrees to welcome the love by which he is loved and who wants to respond to it by loving even more. But he knows that the love he is returning is poured out by the Spirit in his heart, for everything is grace from God. Contemplative prayer is the poor and humble surrender to the loving will of the Father in ever deeper union with his beloved Son.[9]

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The rich eastern theology of the icon further gives insights about the significance of contemplation.  In Eastern theology of the icon, before the icon, the viewer or gazer is invited to enter into the mystery or sacrament of the icon.   The object of contemplation is the mystery, the world of the icon, the prototype not the object itself. We focus not on what is seen in the icon, but rather on what is seen through it–the love of God expressed through God’s creatures. Thus, contemplation affords more the experience of praying with the icon rather than just praying to icon.  Icons are not the final object of our prayer but God who invites us to enter into God’s love and participate in God’s love through our love for fellow brothers and sisters and the whole of creation.

In a profound way, contemplating the icon is an event–the encounter between our life on earth and God’s life in heaven. Icon is more than an object of veneration; it is a window to eternity. Icons stand in-between our life here on earth and the life of the saints in heaven. Mary gazes on our life here on earth while we gaze on the life of Mary and the saints in heaven. Thus the icon and Mary helps to awaken an aesthetic, contemplative and doxological attitude—a sense of gratitude, awe and wonder—in the devotees’ life and faith.

Mary as model of contemplation

As devotees enter more and more into the contemplative spirit, they see Mary as a model of contemplation. This is what St. John Paul II underscored in his Apostolic Letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae:

The contemplation of Christ has an incomparable model in Mary. In a unique way the face of the Son belongs to Mary. It was in her womb that Christ was formed, receiving from her a human resemblance which points to an even greater spiritual closeness. No one has ever devoted himself to the contemplation of the face of Christ as faithfully as Mary. The eyes of her heart already turned to him at the Annunciation, when she conceived him by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the months that followed she began to sense his presence and to picture his features. When at last she gave birth to him in Bethlehem, her eyes were able to gaze tenderly on the face of her Son, as she “wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger” (Lk2:7).[10]

The mouth, ears, and nose of Mary in the icon of OMPH symbolize the contemplative attitude of Mary. We see the mouth and the ears of Mary particularly small. The mouth of Mary is small because it is already transformed in its heavenly form; she no longer needs the food that the world gives. Moreover, her mouth is sealed because prayer needs silence and fervent attention on God. The ears of Mary are not given much attention and it is almost hidden under her veil. This implies that it is no longer fascinated with the sounds of the world but only to the word and command of God. Her nose is long and slender which evokes honor. It is no longer dependent on the aroma of the world but only to Christ and to the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit.

An invitation to contemplate one’s own life

Mary’s gaze upon the devotees is sorrowful because Mary sees our misery here on earth. Mary feels the pain and suffering that we undergo daily. Her gaze, therefore, is a gaze of mercy and compassion.

Moreover, Mary’s gaze enables the devotees to see the mystery of their own life and of life itself. Mary’s enigmatic gaze pierce into the soul of devotees that they could not escape plunging into their conscience and discovering its beauty and lowliness.  Mary’s gaze is an invitation to plunge into God’s Mystery, through the mystery of their own lives. This is the experience of Milton Coyne III aka Bluedreamer:

When I was working in Makati, Baclaran Church has become a normal sight to me. The buses from Cavite will normally stop near the Baclaran while the jeepneys bound to Ayala can be found near the site. Since I usually arrive early, for some reason, I decided to spend at least 5 to 10 minutes praying in front of the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. As time passes by, I realized that my prayers are becoming deeper that I’m starting to find peacefulness every time I kneel down and pray. I even cry and I do not even bother if anyone sees me weeping. It was a sudden change of faith and I started to realize how blessed I am by appreciating those simple things that came to my life unexpectedly.[11]

Milton Coyne’s contemplative experience shows that in contemplating God it is God finding us rather than us finding God. It is not so much how we see God and Mary in the icon but we experience more how God and Mary see our lives. As Polish Redemptorist Maryk Kotinski said,

The icon is first and foremost about God who constantly looks for us. Christianity is, above all, an intervention of God.  It is not so much human’s search for God as a descent of God’s life to the human level. It is God who reveals himself, who manifests himself.[12]

An invitation to contemplate the world

Gazing at the icon also invites the devotees to gaze at the world like Mary.  Contemplating the icon help the devotees to form within themselves the mindset of Mary.

Through contemplation of the sacred image the viewer-believer should raise himself above the flawed world that surrounds him to the very real world of the Divinity, thus producing a bond between the viewer and the image that is not only aesthetical but also mystical.[13]

The icon enshrined in the retable is a silent witness to the many changes in the world during these eighty five years. Many of the devotees who come to the shrine sought guidance and strength in navigating these constantly changing issues. They brought the many concerns and issues that affect their lives in their families, communities, the nation and the world. In the midst of the sweeping changes and the burning issues in the nation and the world, the icon has become an anchor of hope and transformation for the devotees.

Through the Icon of OMPH devotees learned to contemplate the world through the gaze of Mary. In seeking directions for the contemporary challenges, the icon gives the devotees a framework at how to see and navigate the world. The icon offers the devotees a contemplative perspective of life and of the world

An invitation to contemplate Christ

Mary’s gaze is not only a gaze of sorrow and mercy but a gaze of hodegetria; a gaze which gives us a wider vision, a renewed vision of our lives through the world of Jesus. It is a gaze to see their whole life’s involvement in the work of Redemption of Christ.

Mary’s gaze is directed towards contemplation of Christ. Jesus in the icon is looking not at Mary but at the cross, even beyond the cross outside of the icon. The eyes of Jesus are looking at God the Father with a mixture of sadness and joyful hope. The cross will bring pain and death but it will also lead to the glory of all humankind in the time to come. Mary invites us to learn from her son Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life. The path of Jesus is the cross that will lead us to new life and victory.

Ultimately, the gaze of Mary is a call to mission. Contemplating the icon of OMPH is not just contemplation for contemplation’s sake. Mary’s gaze is a call to become a disciple of Jesus. Having become aware of ourselves and the world in the perspective of Mary and following the path of Jesus, contemplation essentially leads to the mission of Jesus. Contemplation is geared towards participation in the mission of God within ourselves and in the world.

Conclusion

Baclaran is not just a shrine of devotion but also a shrine of contemplation. The atmosphere of the shrine is an invitation for the devotees not just to pray the novena but to enter into a deeper form of prayer–contemplation. Devotion to Mary and prayer to God is not only through words but also silence.

The greatest challenge that devotees received in experiencing the shrine as a shrine of contemplation is how to transform their devotion from petitionary form of devotion to participation in Mary’s life. They need to experience Mary as a model of contemplation—a life of continuous surrender and letting the mystery of God’s mission and plan enter their lives.

(This article is an excerpt from the book Mary of Baclaran: Our Mother of Perpetual Help and Mission Today by Joey Echano, soon to be published)


 

[1]Pope Francis then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Homily of October 10, 1999 in Antonio Fidalgo, C.Ss.R, “To See as OMPH Does,” Scala News, May 8, 2018. Accessed at https://www.cssr.news/2018/05/to-see-as-our-mother-of-perpetual-help-does/

[2] Sapitula, Marian Piety and Modernity, 215.

[3] https://www.facebook.com/pg/omphbaclaran/reviews/

[4] https://www.facebook.com/pg/omphbaclaran/reviews/

[5] https://www.facebook.com/pg/omphbaclaran/reviews/

[6] St. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, #11.

[7] Cardinal George Bergoglio, “Homily of October 10, 1999” (arzbaires.org). See also Homily of September 22, 2013 (vatican.va) in Antonio Fidalgo, C.Ss.R, “To See as OMPH Does.”

[8] Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2715.

[9] Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2712.

[10] St. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, #10.

[11] Milton Coyne III aka Bluedreamer, “How My Faith Changed Me?” Accessed at http://bluedreamer27.com/how-my-faith-changed-me/

[12] Marek Kotynski, Meditations on the Icon of OMPH (Rome: Scala Publications, 2015),

[13] Maria Luisa de Villalobos, in Ulysses da Silva, C.Ss.R., “Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Popular Piety.”

The Shrine as a School of Mary

school-of-Mary

Marian shrines in particular
provide an authentic school of faith
based on Mary’s example and motherly intercession.”[1]

During seminars on the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, we asked the participants: Who is the perpetual help? Immediately they would answer with great conviction, Mary, of course. But then we’ll repeat the question. This time, we’ll rephrase the question: Mary is the Mother of perpetual help, so who is the perpetual help? This time they would think for a while and stare at us intriguingly.

We use this question as a take-off point for a deeper study of the icon. Mary is our Mother of Perpetual Help. Mary is the mother of the source of perpetual help which is her son Jesus. As in the icon, Mary is she who points to the way—Jesus Christ.

This question also becomes the starting point for the study on the life of Mary and the theology of Mary or Mariology. Mary is not just the mother of God but also the first disciple and missionary of Jesus.

Evangelization is one of the major mission of the shrine. Evangelization represents the biggest challenge of the shrine for the renewal of the devotion.  A major expression of this challenge is for the shrine to be a school of Mary.  As the document states, “Marian shrines in particular provide an authentic school of faith based on Mary’s example and motherly intercession.”[2]

Some of the programs of the shrine as school of Mary are catechesis, evangelization and proclamation. The shrine evangelized the devotees primarily through prophetic preaching—by connecting the Word of God and their devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help to their daily issues, struggles, concerns and aspirations. Prophetic preaching challenged the devotion by proclaiming the transformative power of the Word and Mary’s life in the personal lives of devotees. Genesis Toledo Lustre narrates such experience in October 31, 2017.

I was four months pregnant when I set foot at Baclaran Church not knowing why I went there. I was frustrated and depressed during those times. My original plan was to end up my life because of the unbearable pain caused by the predicament I was going through at that time.

I was seated at the side of the church and was thinking why I am in this place. And then I heard the words of the priest: “There is no test the Lord gives which we cannot carry.” Along these lines, I asked God if I am really strong enough for such a test. These thoughts kept echoing on my head.  Then suddenly, I was enlightened and asked any sign from God if I should fight for my husband or not. And God gave me his quick answer. On my way home God showed me the sign to continue fighting for my family.

From then on I often went to this church to pray or sometimes just to light candles and ask God’s help through Mama Mary. From that time on my problems gradually lessened. My situation slowly changed based on my wholehearted petition to God. Today, what I asked of God was fulfilled. There is so much change in my husband and things are fine for all of us. Most of all, we are together now in going to Baclaran Church to pray. I saw the sincerity in my husband’s eyes which made me happy and contented.

Thank you Lord for hearing my prayers. You did not disappoint me for my simple petition.[3]

Redemptorist_preaching

After the explosion of the novena and the influx of thousands of devotees in 1948, the focus of the Redemptorist was the leading of the novena and the administering of the sacraments of the Eucharist and reconciliation. Because of this, the evangelization’s orientation of the shrine at this time was more devotional —focusing on Mary’s privileges and the need to honor her with affection and constant prayer. Undoubtedly, this has encouraged a deeply personal and pietistic devotion.

Beginning in the 60s, the shrine began to preach about the signs of the times in the light of the gospel. The shrine actively promoted justice and peace in preaching and seasonal liturgical celebrations. This heightened the awareness of the devotees to the social dimension of their devotion.

In recent years, the shrine has integrated more the theology and spirituality of the icon in their homilies and catechesis in the shrine. This reflects a shift from introducing the icon merely as a devotional object to an icon with profound spiritual and theological meaning and calling. The restoration of the original icon in Rome in 1995 became an inspiration for the Redemptorists to preach more about the icon—it’s story, meaning, spirituality and theology.

The shrine also stressed the evangelizing power of the life of Mary.  This necessitated a rediscovering of Mary in scriptures and the human Mary. By understanding more about the life and character of Mary, the shrine hope that devotees may be able to emulate her more and identify with her.

The shrine in recent years has also tried to integrate the popular religiosity of the devotees with a genuine sense of mission and active social involvement.  The shrine has also encouraged the devotees to develop their devotion from praying the novena to becoming more active in their respective parishes and communities.

Novena Text

An important tool for evangelization in the shrine is the Novena text. The novena is not just all about petitions to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. The novena has been evangelizing the devotees since the very beginning. The Novena text has always emphasized the life and example of Mary as a disciple of Christ and Mary exhorts all the devotees to follow her son as well. As devotees pray in the novena,

While you were on earth, dear Mother * you willingly shared in the sufferings of your Son.* Strengthened by your faith and confidence * in the fatherly love of God * *you accepted the mysterious designs of His Will.*

We, too, have our crosses and trials.* Sometimes they almost crush us to the ground.* Dearest Mother, * share with us your abundant faith and confidence in God.* Make us aware that God never ceases to love us; * that He answers all our prayers * in the way that is best for us. * Strengthen our hearts to carry the cross * in the footsteps of your Divine Son. Help us to realize * that he who shares the cross of Christ * will certainly share His resurrection.

novena

The shrine in it’s latest version of the novena made several revisions to reflect a healthier theology on Mary. The biggest revision along this line is shifting the focus of the source of help from Mary to Jesus; that the source of help is God–Jesus. Mary intercedes for the devotees so they can receive God’s perpetual help. For example the response to the petitions to Our Mother of Perpetual Help was changed from Help us to Pray for us

1973 Novena

LOVING MOTHER HELP US

2016 Novena

LOVING MOTHER PRAY FOR US

Mary is an intercessor rather than the giver of grace. In the following prayer in the novena, the words powerful help supposedly coming from Mary was changed to compassionate intercession.

1973 Novena

Dearest Mother, help us to avoid sin which separates us from our heavenly Father * and from one another. Full of thrust in you * we place ourselves under the mantle of your maternal protection * and confidently hope for your powerful help.

2016 Novena

Dearest Mother, help us to avoid sin which separates us from our heavenly Father * and from one another. Full of thrust in you * we place ourselves under the mantle of your maternal protection *  and confidently hope for your compassionate intercession

 Similarly, in the prayer below, the source of perpetual help is God. Mary points all devotees to God the giver of all help and graces. Thus, the words addressed to Mary as help us was changed to pray for us. Similarly, the words your powerful help was changed to God’s perpetual help.

1973 Novena

All:

Holy Mary * help us in our needs * pray for all the people of God; * may all experience your perpetual help.

 

2016 Novena

 

All:

Holy Mary pray for us * pray for all the people of God; * may all experience God’s perpetual help.

 

Return to Mary 

The traits and personality of Mary resembles some of the character of the devotees. Many of the values and qualities of devotees resonate with the values and qualities of Mary. The simplicity and humility of Mary, for example, correspond to the warm affection and trust of the thousands of devotees. The devotees emulate some of the simplicity and humility of Mary. No wonder, most of popular devotions are Marian in nature. American journalist Maureen Orth, suggests that one of the reasons for the  popularity of devotion to Mary is because “Mary is often the touchstone of our longing for meaning, a more accessible link to the supernatural than formal church teachings.”[4]

photo-gallery-devotees-raise-hands

Many devotees, however, see Mary primarily as intercessor with God. Many devotees venerate Mary to intercede for them with God, and lesser do they take her as model to imitate because they do not know much about her life and journey during her life on earth. Taking Mary primarily as an intercessor may also be rooted to the indigenous origins of Filipino religiosity deeply embedded among the devotees. Indigenous Filipinos believe in a shaman who enters the supernatural realms or dimensions to obtain solutions to problems afflicting their individual lives and the community. They intercede with the gods to seek solution and bring good results.

They may now see Mary as the new shaman. A big part of the appeal of Mary Our Mother of Perpetual Help is the certainty among  the devotees that their prayers will reach God because Mary is the most powerful intercessor. Mary is closest to God–she is full of grace and most blessed of all human beings that ever lived–therefore God will listen to their prayers because Mary intercedes for them.

Mary, however, goes beyond being a powerful intercessor or shaman. She is a model disciple and missionary of Jesus which all devotees need to emulate. To understand Mary beyond being an intercessor, the shrine has integrated more the life of Mary in the preaching in novenas and masses. In these preaching, the shrine challenged the devotees to return to the life of Mary. The shrine has emphasized the need to unravel more her virtues and reconnect their devotion with the real Mary.

Moreover, Mary is one among us; she is not just sitting on a pedestal. Yes, she is a model of the church, but she is also a member of the church. As American theologian Elizabeth Johnson would say, she is not just our mother but also our sister.[5] Following the example of Mary, each in his or her own way brings forth Christ as Pope Francis explains,

In a way, every Christian is also believed to be a bride of God’s word, a mother of Christ, his daughter and sister, at once virginal and fruitful…  Christ dwelt for nine months in the tabernacle of Mary’s womb.  He dwells until the end of the ages in the tabernacle of the Church’s faith.  He will dwell forever in the knowledge and love of each faithful soul” (EG, #285, 212).[6]

Preaching more about the life of Mary entails a shift in devotion from honoring the privileges and splendors of Mary for their own sake to following more her example; a shift from putting Mary on a pedestal where no one can reach her to remodeling their lives with the life of Mary. Devotion is to be like Mary, to learn from Mary. Yes, Mary recognizes our basic economic needs but there is more to our economic needs. Mary pierces into our souls—Mary sees a more profound need, hunger and thirst within us, that is, existential and eschatological hunger.

It is in this context that Mary becomes an evangelizer in the shrine. As the thousands of devotees see in the icon, while Mary’s eyes gaze intently on us, her right hand points to Jesus. Mary is the Hodegetria—she who points the way, leads people to follow Jesus. In the words of Pope Francis,

Mary is the woman of faith, who lives and advances in faith, and “her exceptional pilgrimage of faith represents a constant point of reference for the Church”. Mary let herself be guided by the Holy Spirit on a journey of faith towards a destiny of service and fruitfulness.[7]

It is in this light that Pope Paul VI proposed that Mary be the model for all evangelizers. He gave Mary the title “Star of Evangelization,”

On the morning of Pentecost she watched over with her prayer the beginning of evangelization prompted by the Holy Spirit: may she be the Star of the evangelization ever renewed which the Church, docile to her Lord’s command, must promote and accomplish, especially in these times which are difficult but full of hope.[8]

Similarly, Pope Francis called Mary as the Mother of Evangelization: “She is the Mother of the Church which evangelizes, and without her we could never truly understand the spirit of the new evangelization.”[9]

In living out a proper and meaningful devotion, they can look up to Mary. Mary is herself a devotee; Mary is the exemplar par excellence of a devotee. She is a devotee they need to look up to for she already experienced what they all long for as a devotee. Mary as a devotee has fully reached out to heavens; has tasted, felt, and touched heaven, the sacred, the mystery and the divine. She has bridged the ordinary and the divine. Mary as a devotee with us, praying with us is expressed by Portia Fidelis C. Legaspi, in a thanksgiving letter she wrote on April 18,2014:

It is always at the darkest and difficult time of my life that I experience your loving presence, giving me hope and strength to survive. And later, witness how through your intercession my human limitations and weaknesses be fortified by your unfailing guidance. I owe you all that I am today. I am a mother of three children, a real estate broker and a law student from 2009 until 2013. During my fourth year in law school last 2012, our family was beset with a painful test. My second child only 15 was charged with a criminal case. I felt devastated. We knew that my child was innocent, and that the charge was meant to extort money from my family. This event challenged my conviction as a mother and as a future lawyer. It came to the point, that I asked God and Mother Mary, to help me look after my child And protect him from all the evil people. That I am willing to stop my studies and career in the law profession if the situation will demand for it. Today, I have passed the 2013 bar exam, and a full fledged lawyer at the end of April 2014. During the times, when my mind and heart went out for my child rather than to my bar review, it was God and Mother Mary that helped me survive each day. It was through her intercession that I surpassed my human weakness and be Strong by having faith. Success is always possible, I and others like me just have to keep our faith to God and Mother Mary. For what I am today, it is God and Mother Mary that lifted me up. Thank you so much.

Return to the Icon

The renewed interest in the Eastern theology of the icon inspired the shrine to return to the Icon as an important vehicle in the school of Mary. In recent years, Redemptorist were preaching more about the iconographical elements of the icon. The Redemptorists were also preaching more about the Eastern theology and spirituality of the icon.

In so doing, devotees saw the icon not just as a devotional object but as a window to the divine, to eternity, an encounter between their mundane existence on earth and the certain promise of a future life with God. Experiencing icon in this way appeals profoundly to the devotees’ rootedness in the indigenous cosmic worldview. If we recall, our ancestors believed in an invisible society coexisting with their material world. This society, they believed, was inhabited by spirits that included dead ancestors, deities, and lesser gods.[10] To represent this society and the spirits residing in this world, our ancestors created anito which are sometimes called larauan (icons) made from wood, stone, or ivory. They served as the bridge to the spiritual world. The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help appeals to the devotees because it served as a window to eternity in the same way that their ancestors’ larauan served as bridge to the higher heavens.

touching-the-icon

The return to the icon also shifted the ultimate focus of devotion from Mary to Jesus. Mary is the Hodegetria—she who points the way. The perpetual help of Mary is centered on Jesus. As Fr. da Silva reiterates,

With her Son in her arms, which expresses at the same time both the Incarnation and the Passion, Mary gives us our plentiful redemption again and again …This is why Mary is our perpetual help, the mediator of all graces. All the other petitions we are accustomed to present in our Novenas should come later, as though integrated into the greatest grace that Mary offers us, that is, her very own Son.[11]

Liturgy

Another important tool of evangelization in the shrine is the liturgy. Many have called our attention that novena is more popular than the Eucharist and sometimes it seems that the Eucharist is just an addendum to the novena. Some of the devotees, after praying the novena, leave the shrine and do not attend the Eucharist anymore. Indeed, in Baclaran, Wednesday—novena day—is more popular than Sunday.

Through these years, the shrine has strengthened its celebration of the Eucharist. The shrine has enhanced the participation of the whole assembly. Efforts have been made in the shrine to harmonize the novena prayer with the liturgy and the liturgical seasons.  Recognizing that liturgy is the most important activity of the shrine, the Redemptorist saw this as a very important undertaking taking into consideration that our shrine is not just an ordinary shrine but a national shrine.  This is also in line with the call for liturgical renewal as envisaged in Vatican II’s Constitution on Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium):

… the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the church is directed; at the same time it is the fount from which all the church’s power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made children of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of his church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord’s Supper.” –The Constitution on the Liturgy, 10

A perennial question hurled by other Christian denominations at Catholics is: Do Catholics worship Mary?  Devotees’ main attraction is Mary Our Mother of Perpetual Help; their fondness for Mary has often times made her more important than Jesus.

cropped-1stwed2011331.jpg

Ever since ancient times, the church has always reiterated the importance of worship over devotion or veneration. The church has distinguished between latria (worship) and dulia (veneration). This distinction was made as early as Augustine of Hippo and St Jerome. In 787 the Second Council of Nicaea affirmed a three-level hierarchy of latria, hyperdulia and dulia that applies to God, the Virgin Mary and then to the other saints respectively.

Dulia (Greek doulia; Latin servitus), is a theological term signifying the honour paid to the saints, while latria means worship given to God alone, and hyperdulia the veneration offered to the Blessed Virgin Mary.[12] Hyperdulia is not adoration; only God is adored. Devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help, therefore, does not amount to worship – which is reserved for God. This distinction implies giving importance to the Eucharist and the sacraments which are celebrations of true worship of God. Moreover, this clarifies for the devotees the importance of the worship of God and the following of Jesus as his disciple over devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. As Ang Mahal na Birhen declares, “all veneration of Mary is to be subordinated to the adoration of the triune God and of Christ who is the Mediator.”[13]

On the other hand, there should be integration between liturgy and devotion. Ulyssys da Silva calls for a stronger unity between the official liturgy and popular piety of the people:

[I]f the sacramental action, celebrated in the Liturgy, does not move toward an encounter with an interior piety, already called forth and nurtured by the Holy Spirit, it becomes ineffective. When both are experienced in parallel, as two distinct realities, without seeking a concrete integration that unites them in a single celebration, we are not being faithful to Jesus, for whom what mattered most was not the “official cult” or the pious customs, but rather, the experience of meeting the Father and the fraternity among his disciples. Therefore, the first purpose of sacramental action is to further enhance the experience of piety, even to the experience of complete union between a human being and God. Only in this way does a creature arrive at perfect conformity to the Will of the Father and undertake in earnest the mission of the Kingdom of His beloved Son. When will we get to the point of having this gospel reality clearly visualized in all our liturgical celebrations and acts of piety?[14]

Debo(Mi)syon

In recent years the shrine has emphasized the unity of devotion and mission. This is encapsulated in what the shrine called debo(Mi)syon: a concatenation of two words: debosyon (devotion) and misyon (mission). This implies that devotion and mission mutually saturate each other. Devotion cannot be confined to devotion but is essentially missional. Mission cannot be confined to mission or action but is essentially devotional.  They are not two separate entities. Fr. Victorino Cueto explains that this is the disposition that pervade the Baclaran phenomenon,

a dis/position that is akin to a journey, a search that lies devotion and mission. It is highly devotion-al as it is filled with zeal and love. The devout is intensely touched by his/her experience glimpsed through the Icon of God. S/He is “consecrated” to the altar of a man-God whom s/he encounters in his/her narrations of prayerful pleas and heartfelt gratitude. In the same regard, it is mission-al in its practiced desire to reach-out and serve others, not in his/her own terms alone but in the service of God’s mission and His/Her Reign.[15]

Translated into evangelization, the aim of debo(Mi)syon is to make devotees become aware that they are missionaries and are partners in the mission of God. Through preaching, retreats, prayers and liturgies, devotees deepen their understanding of their identity as missionaries and by virtue of their baptism, they are sent as missionaries. Through evangelization the shrine has emphasized the identity of Mary as first disciple of Jesus so that as they grow in their devotion to Mary, they grow as disciples of Jesus.  On the other hand, as they become worthier disciples of Jesus, their devotion to Mary grows stronger.

The goal of debo(Mi)syon is for the devotion to become not mere religious piety and ritualistic devotionalism, nor mere supplication and thanksgiving, nor just practical participation in the mission of the church, but more importantly, it is entering into the mystery of the mission of God. Just as the icon calls devotees to participate in the divine mystery of the icon which is the life of glory with God and the saints, debo(Mi)syon calls devotees to see their lives in the life of the divine trinity—a life of mission within the three-persons-one-God and the overflowing of this love to the world, the whole of creation. Debo(Mi)syon is ultimately imitating the life of Mary who is the epitome of an icon of God, the prototype of a redeemed creation and the exemplar par excellence of a disciple of Christ. The shrine becomes the locus of the encounter betwixt and between heaven and earth, of living the present and the eschatological fullness of life.

Conclusion

Evangelization, indeed, is the greatest challenge of the shrine today as in the past. Much remains to be desired in this area. The shrine has to give more emphasis in evangelizing the devotees about the Icon and the life of Mary. The shrine also needs to further promote a holistic evangelization. Evangelization needs to address the many areas of life and piety of devotees that are disconnected from each other.

Joey Echano

(This article is an excerpt from the book Mary of Baclaran: Our Mother of Perpetual Help and Mission Today by Joey Echano, soon to be published)


 

[1] The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God

[2] The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God

[3] https://www.facebook.com/pg/omphbaclaran/reviews/

[4] Maureen Orth, “How the Virgin Mary Became the Most Powerful Woman,” National Geographic, December, 2015, http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/12/virgin-mary-text

[5]see Elizabeth  Johnson, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (New York: Continuum, 2003).

[6] Evangelii Gaudium, #285.

[7] Evangelii Gaudium, #287.

[8] Evangelii Nuntiandi, #82.

[9] Evangelii Gaudium, #284.

[10] Almocera, Ruel A., (2005) Popular Filipino Spiritual Beliefs with a proposed Theological Response. in Doing Theology in the Philippines. Suk, John., Ed. Mandaluyong: OMF Literature Inc. Pp 78-98

[11] Ulysses da Silva, C.Ss.R., Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Popular Piety, #48.

[12] Dulia, Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent. Accessed at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05188b.htm

[13] Ang Mahal na Birhen, #80.

[14] Ulysses da Silva, C.Ss.R., Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Popular Piety, #34.

[15] Cueto, DEBO(MI)SYON: Celebrating the Spirit in / of Baclaran, 12.

Our Mother of Perpetual Help: Icon of Compassion

 

fiesta-icon
Photo credit: A. Lubi, C.Ss.R. | Baclaran | June 2018

“Be ready to intercede with every form of help
for each human heart and all the peoples …
especially for those who have heavy ordeals in life
due to suffering, poverty and every form of afflictions…
Mother of Perpetual Help, accept this humble offering
 and place it in the Heart of Your Son,”
– St. John Paul II in Baclaran

Filipinos have embraced Mary, Our Mother of Perpetual Help, as their own mother. From the moment that Our Mother of Perpetual Help arrived in the Philippines in 1906, Filipinos took her into their own homes and communities. Many devotees fondly call Our Mother of Perpetual Help “Mama Mary” (Mother Mary). It may sound sentimentalist to some but to many devotees it expresses their deep devotion and childlike dependence on Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Just like Marvin L. Maderas who in October 14, 2014, wrote a thanksgiving letter to Our Mother of Perpetual Help which she fondly calls Mama Mary,

Dear Mama Mary,

I cannot stop thanking you for the blessings you have given me. I was jobless and hopeless then. I prayed to You for a job and You found me one in Manila, near your shrine. I tried to make it every Wednesday to attend to the novena asking for a more permanent job so that I can continue to support my children in their college education. You not only given me a regular employment but you restored me to my previous job in my hometown. O Mama Mary, You are really the kindest of all mothers for granting my prayers and giving me this extra gift! I am now working in our place and going back to our home daily and sleeping every night beside my youngest daughter. I can now watch her as she grows up into a lady. Nothing is impossible to you and your generosity is beyond expectation. Thank you, thank you so much Mama Mary. I promise to proclaim Your miraculous intervention in every opportunity that I have. Amen

Mary of Baclaran is the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help enshrined on the altar of the shrine. The original icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is enshrined in Rome in the Church of St. Alphonsus Liguori (Chiesa di Sant’Alfonso di Liguori all’Esquilino in Italian). It is a Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox Church) icon painted sometime between 1350 and 1450 AD in the island of Crete by an unknown iconographer (painter of icons).

Unlike other objects of devotions to the Blessed Mother in the Philippines which are usually images or statues of Western origin, Our Mother of Perpetual Help is an icon of Eastern origin.  Not all devotees know that Our Mother of Perpetual Help is an icon let alone an Eastern icon. Many are unfamiliar that this icon comes from the Eastern Church tradition. This comes to the fore when devotees comment on the beauty of Mary in the icon. Many find Mary in the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help different from the smooth, fair, and beautiful faces of Mary they have been used to in images or statues of Mary of Western origin, like Fatima, Lourdes, or Rosary. This highlight a significant reality that Filipinos’ standard of religious beauty has, for a long time, been conditioned by Western standards, symbolism and spirituality.

The unfamiliarity with the Eastern spirituality and understanding of the icon adds to the mystery of the icon. This is symbolized by the location of the icon at the shrine—enshrined at the top of the altar with no physical access for devotees. Despite the inaccessibility of the icon, however, devotees find creative ways to reach the icon. I remember the story of Fr. Maguire on a one Wednesday when he just finished the blessing of pious objects. A woman approached him and said, “Can I go in and touch the image of the Blessed Mother?” He said, “How do you intend to do that?” He had an image in his mind of her trying to climb the bronze decorations above the Tabernacle to reach the icon. She said simply, however, “I just touch the tabernacle; the icon is connected to it.”

For many devotees, the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help seems to be full of paradoxes: distant yet near, mysterious yet familiar, unattractive yet inviting, and alienating yet fascinating.  Indeed, there is a profound mystery and universal appeal in the icon that transcends the physical and natural as Clement M. Henze suggests,

It appeals to the supernatural within us; to something, therefore, that is wider than the world; to something that is not confined to race, or color, or country; to something that is not determined by artistic theories or artistic values, be they proper to the East or to the West.[1]

Despite all these, Filipinos loved the icon of Mary of Baclaran. How can a strange foreign icon become so popular and well-loved in the Philippines, not to mention in many parts of the world where there is widespread devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help? Brazilian Redemptorist Fr. J. Ulysses da Silva, C.Ss.R. tries to make sense of this enigma,

[W]e are faced with an Icon that in itself does not belong to the Catholic tradition of the Roman Rite, or to western religiosity, as we know it and inherited it with our paintings and devotional images. How was it possible for this Icon to be welcomed in such an amazing way by the devotional world of the west? What process would have had to happen for the mandate of Pius IX to us Redemptorists to have such an international effect and for peoples of different cultures to feel such a strong affection for a typically Byzantine Icon? Or could it be that we have taken an Icon of eastern culture and conferred a new meaning upon it, so that it might penetrate our religious culture?[2]

Appeal of the Icon to our Indigenous Religiosity

There must be something in the icon of Mary Our Mother of Perpetual Help that appeal profoundly to the Filipinos’ sense of religiosity, or as da Silva suggests, Filipino devotees could have conferred a new meaning upon it consonant with their cultural and religious idiosyncrasies. Fr. Nico Perez also ponders on the attraction of the icon to Filipino devotees and posits that it has something to do with the practical advantages of it being an icon.[3] Unlike a statue,  a copy of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help can be easily placed on their wallets. Thus, the icon is always with them wherever they go. It would be inconvenient doing the same thing to a statue. In other words, Our Mother of Perpetual Help as an icon has the character of accessibility (availability), mobility (transportability) and physicality (presence)—qualities which always appeal to and sustains popular religiosity.

In the previous chapter, we saw how our ancestors also made larauan (icons) made from wood, stone, or ivory which are representation of the invisible society coexisting with their material world. In other words, these larauan served as the bridge to the spiritual world. The icon of OMPH appeals to the devotees because it served as a window to eternity in the same way that their ancestors’ larauan served as bridge to the higher heavens.

Rootedness in the Church Tradition and Teaching on Mary

Before Pope Pius IX entrusted the icon to the Redemptorist in 1866, it took an almost 500 year’s journey from Crete to Rome. The miraculous icon was painted or written in the 14th century in the island of Crete.  The story of the journey of the icon from Crete to Rome is a fascinating one. It is a long journey replete with miraculous anecdotes. One very significant observation is that from the very beginning of the journey of the icon, the protagonists of the veneration have been mostly lay people: the merchant who ‘stole’ the icon, the family who came into possession of it and the girl to whom Our Lady appeared in a dream so as not to be forgotten.[4] Through many ordinary people, sinners even, Mary was directing people where the Icon should go and where it should be enshrined for veneration. This may also hold true in Baclaran.

The story of the icon, however, cannot be traced only from the 14th century as the icon represents the hundreds of years of church’s tradition, teaching and reflection on the role of Mary in God’s mission beginning from the Council of Ephesus in 431, which gave the title to Mary, as Mother of God.  The original Greek word used in this church dogma was theotokos which means God-bearer.  Mary was chosen to be the bearer of God-made-man.

The teachings and faith declarations of the church on Mary, however, was based on the scriptures and witness’ accounts of her actual life here in earth.  Therefore, the icon also bears the actual life of Mary.  To kiss an icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is to show love towards Virgin Mary herself, not just to the wood and paint making up the physical substance of the icon. Veneration of the icon as entirely separate from Mary’s life is inconceivable. Indeed, we can say that the icon is a relic of the living Mary; an icon of a life lived in the fullness of God’s grace: “Hail Mary full of Grace.”

The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, therefore, is more than a work of art.  It is a sacred testament which reveals the church’s profound development in the understanding, belief, and recognition of Mary as the Icon of Trinitarian love. The icon is not mentioned in the scriptures but expressed centuries of church’s traditions and teachings on Mary as well as veneration and devotion of people through the years. In order to understand the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, therefore, we need to understand the theological and spiritual role of Mary as proclaimed by the church through the centuries. As Fr. da Silva reiterates,

The Icon itself is normally not the object of devotion or veneration, as are our pictures and images of saints. It is totally integrated into a broader context, as a sacramental reference to the contemplation of the mystery of Christ and the Trinity. It is an invitation to contemplate the History of Salvation in its mystery dimension, that is, as a fulfillment of the salvific plan of God.[5]

By containing the church’s teachings and traditions, the icon is important means of evangelization. As the document The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God says, “The icon as an instrument for evangelization especially about the life and theology on Mary. Marian shrines in particular provide an authentic school of faith based on Mary’s example and motherly intercession.”[6]

Synthesis of Marian iconography/archetypes

Church’s tradition and teachings on Mary is not only ingrained in the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. The icon is a product of centuries of tradition of iconographic archetypes. Each of these archetype contributed to the final art and meaning of the icon. Ferero states that if we wish to understand the original and overall significance of icons, we must refer back to the iconographic archetypes that produced them.[7]

The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is at the tail end of a long creative, artistic and theological process. [T]he original icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help was written by the iconographer at a time when the Christian art of symbols was reaching the end of its creative process. As a result it becomes a synthesis of the fundamental elements of earlier Marian iconography. Being at the tail end, it gains much of the insights, spirituality and meaning of previous icons.

Let us now examine briefly the iconographic archetypes contained in icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

There are five Marian archetypes that are significantly present in the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. They originally appear in a number of other fundamental iconographic themes or compositions. Ferero enumerates these archetypes as the Virgin Mother, the Mother of God as Empress, the Orant, the Hodegetria and the Eleusa. All other types and models, including the Virgin of the Passion, are derived from these five archetypes.[8]

Virgin Mother

Upon her veil are three stars, which represent her eternal virginity: Mary was “always a virgin, before, during and after the birth of Jesus Christ.”[9]

Mother of God as Empress

Besides Christ, the basis of all iconography, no other subject has been more depicted than Mary, the Theotokos (Greek for “Mother of God”, literally “God-Bearer”). The icon of Theotokos represent the first human being who realized the goal of the Incarnation: the deification of man.

On her left hand the Virgin holds the hand of he who holds the universe in his hand and whom neither heaven nor earth can contain. The words of the Akathistos hymn read as follows:

“He who sits in glory, on the throne of Divinity, Jesus, the Supreme God, came in a veil of cloud, into the arms of the Immaculate, and brought salvation to those who cried out, ‘Glory, 0 Christ, to your power’” (Od. 4).

“Hail to you who bear he who sustains all” (Od. 1). “Hail to you, the seat of God, the Infinite one; hail to you, the portal of the sacred mystery … Hail, to this throne more holy than that of the cherubim; hail seat more beautiful than that of the seraphim” (Od. 15).

Orant

Mary as intercessor. In this type, Mary is shown with arms in ornate position, with Christ enclosed in a circle in her womb. “Of the Sign,” is a reference to the words of Isaiah 7:14, “The Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”

orant

The Mother of God as one Praying (Orant) is a symbol of the ascension of the soul, through the experience of death, towards the resurrection and participation in the mystical life of Christ. It culminates in the hereafter but we are also called upon to experience it at specific moments of our life on earth, such as times of prayer. This is why the celebrant raises his arms during the Eucharistic prayer and invites the faithful to raise their hearts to God, like Mary as the one Praying and in the scene of the Annunciation, the Ascension and Pentecost.[10]

Eleusa

Eleusa means tender mercy. In this type, the Theotokos holds her Son, who touches his face to hers and wraps at least one arm around her neck or shoulder. This icon type, showing the poignantly intimate relationship between mother and child, is much beloved by Orthodox worshippers, and has been often painted through the centuries

eluesa-icon

The Eleusa does not offer a moving depiction of the relationship between Mother and Son, instead it expresses the most profound experience of the life of the human soul in God, obtained not from a psychical perspective but in the world of the spirit.[11] The Eleusa focuses more on the human and maternal dimension of this Marian attribute.[12]

Hodegetria

Hodegetria depicts Mary as the guide. In this type, the Ever Virgin Mary is holding Christ and pointing toward Him, as a guide to God and salvation.

It is interesting to note that Mary in the Eastern tradition does not give so much emphasis on Mary in her own right. In Byzantine icons, Mary is never depicted by herself, autonomously, separately but always depicted with her divine son—Jesus.

hodegetria-icon

Mary’s right hand is, above all, the Hodegetria hand, that is to say, the hand of she who shows the path to Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Therefore, as in the wedding feast at Cana, she appears to say to believers: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5).[13]

Virgin of the Passion

The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is an example of the Virgin of the Passion type of icon. When we say: Our Mother of Perpetual Succour, we have to include the icon of the Virgin of the Passion and the Marian devotion that has appropriated it.[14]

Da Silva summarized all these iconographical elements in the icon:

Our Lady of Perpetual Help is an iconographic representation of the Theotókos, the Mother of God, in the style of the post-Byzantine school of Crete, between the 15th and 17th centuries. Unlike the Icons that present Mary in a majestic attitude, Our Lady of Perpetual Help bears the same characteristics of serenity, but in a maternal attitude, lovingly holding her son. And while holding him, she presents her Son to whoever is contemplating her. More specifically, Our Lady of Perpetual Help is part of the iconography proper to the Virgin of the Passion, in which the Son glimpses his future sufferings and the serene face of Mary is mixed with something like angst. The child clings to her thumb and one of his sandals is loosened from his foot. The same Archangel Gabriel who announced the Incarnation to her, now with the Archangel Michael shows the Child the instruments of the Passion.[15]

All the theological elements that these iconographic archetypes should be present if we are to develop a healthy and balanced devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. In understanding the meaning of the icon, we need to consider all the iconographic archetypes. In the past, we have stressed so much the intercessory part of Mary but we have neglected the part of the icon where Mary shows the way and Jesus looking beyond the passion. The intercessory dimension of Marian icons is the least powerful part of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help; the strongest is the gaze and the hand.

What’s in a Name?

The title Our Mother of Perpetual Help also evokes profound appeal that draws the attention of Filipino devotees. The name—Our Mother of Perpetual Help—has also contributed to the phenomenal rise of the devotion in Baclaran.  The title Our Mother of Perpetual Help originated in the text itself accompanying the icon. The Blessed Virgin herself chose this name to serve as an encouragement to us all to have recourse to her with complete confidence in all our needs.[16] Let us reflect on each of the name of the title and it’s appeal to the devotees.

Mother

Mother is written in the icon. MP OY = Meter Theou: Mother of God (in the two upper comers of the icon). Our Mother of Perpetual Help is one of the few titles that calls Mary, mother (the only other titles that I can think of are Mother of God and Mother of Mercy). Other titles are mostly called our Lady of _______________ which is oftentimes connected to a particular place.  Other times, Our Mother of Perpetual Help is also called Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Indeed, Our Mother of Perpetual Help is universal; it appeals to us all of our universal experience with our own mothers. Mother is a more universal title. While others are called by their local names, Our Mother of Perpetual Help transcends the local. Fr. Ulysses da Silva expounds,

It is not a title bound to a location (such as Aparecida, Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje, etc.), nor to a privilege or accolade of Mary (like Assumption, Mystical Rose, etc.), nor to the Passion event, as would be the original characterization of the Icon. It is an invocation that identifies the maternal attitude of Mary in relation to her Son and to all of us. It is a universal title in relation to time as well as space, whenever or wherever someone is found in need or in danger.[17]

Similarly, Pope Francis in his homily on the celebration of the first feast of Mary, Mother of the Church on the 21st of May, 2018 in the Vatican, said that Mary is not referred to as “the lady” or “the widow of Joseph,” but is rather called “the mother of Jesus.”  Mary’s motherhood is emphasized throughout the Gospels, from the Annunciation to the foot of the cross.[18]

Perpetual

The adjective perpetual (laging) is always active rather than passive. The emphasis is not just on the help but on the active quality of help. This implies that God through the prayers of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is helping us now, as in the past and in the future, in all our predicaments.

Help

Saklolo is almost a desperate cry for help in distress. This is the plea of many devotees: help me, saklolo! Many are desperate, they have no one to turn to; any help will do. Mary under the title of Ina ng Laging Saklolo (Our Mother of Perpetual Help) appeals to the very situation that the thousands of devotees find themselves in real life.

We are all creatures in need as we sought the help of God and of one another through prayer and action.  Those who have freely received blessings are called to freely give and those who have not yet received theirs petitions are encouraged to continue to ask. By expressing our devotion and praying the novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help, we accept that the help we ask and receive should be perpetual never to be stopped and disconnected from each other.

touching_icon

Perpetual Help

Whenever we show the Icon and ask the people: Who is the perpetual help? Most of them immediately answer: Mary is the perpetual help.  Most devotees think that the help and blessings comes from Mary. But Mary is the Mother of perpetual help; if Mary then is the mother of God—Jesus, Jesus then is the perpetual help.

The perpetual help of Our Mother of Perpetual Help ultimately originates from the perpetual generosity and unconditional love of God to everyone through the devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

Put differently, understanding the meaning of perpetual help in the context of the whole icon, means the perpetual showing of Mary to the devotees Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life. Thus, the name, Our Mother of Perpetual Help can also be appropriately called, Our Lady of the Way as in the iconographic type of hodegetria.

Rediscovering the Icon

Since the Redemptorists introduced the icon to the Filipinos in 1906, the Redemptorist has been instructing the devotees about the meaning and nature of Our Mother of Perpetual Help as an icon. The missionaries also introduced the history and the meaning of the different parts of the icon. The earliest extant of Novena in 1926 explains and meditates on the different parts of the icon. The second earliest Novena in 1936 also includes an explanation and meditation of the different parts of the icon.

The instructions about the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, focused mainly on the meaning of the parts of the icon and the history of the icon from its origin in Crete to its arrival in the Philippines.

The instructions, however, only mentions the Eastern theology, spirituality and background of the icon in passing.  The division within Christianity between the East and the West may have contributed to a lack of appreciation of the Eastern tradition and theology let alone the Eastern background and spirituality of the icon. The return to Eastern spirituality of the icon was only given a boost after more than 100 years of the mandate of Pope Pius IX. The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is one of the greatest Marian gifts of the Eastern Church to the Western Church. Yet, it was overwhelmed by the explosion of the devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

It is essential to understand the background and purpose of Eastern iconography in order to understand the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Instructing about the icon without an understanding of Eastern iconography will only scratch the tip of the iceberg, as Ferero explains,

To truly comprehend the richness of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help we must do more than give it a simply vague or even pious look. We need to tune in to the theological message it holds through an iconographic, aesthetic and spiritual ‘reading’ of the symbolic elements it employs.[19]

Because it expresses a foreign culture–the Byzantine culture–it is not easy to decipher. As Ferrero admits,

[F]or those who belong to a different culture from that represented in such images, icons are works of art that are not easy to understand or appreciate. As with all works of symbolic character, they require an authentic introduction. It is not possible, in a spontaneous way, to capture the message of which they are bearers and which they set out to convey.[20]

Moreover, because of the cultural and time gap, it is also one of those icons that have been most exposed to iconographic distortion. Without losing its fundamental symbolic elements, artists have adapted it to the aesthetics of each region, reducing it, in many cases, to a simple devotional image.[21] Due to this localized adaptation, the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Succor has acquired its own context (added to those of the past) in the Marian devotion that it now symbolizes. The sanctuary of Crete, in which it was so venerated as the Virgin of the Passion, has been replaced by altars to Our Mother of Perpetual Help that the devotion has created all over the world.[22] In so doing, it’s rootedness to the iconographic elements–theological and artistic–have been lost in the process.

We will discuss more the Eastern spirituality of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in later chapters.

Present Situation

We have seen how the theological and iconographic elements help us retrieve the original meaning of the icon. Iconographic understanding of the icon, however, is only one side of the pole. The other side of the pole is the current concrete life-situation of the devotees.

Thus, each period need a re-reading and re-reception of the icon according to their context. We need to read the icon in the context of the burning issues of the day, the signs of the times, and the lights and shadows.

As we contemplate the icon, we experience a creative tension between our present situation and the future life in eternity with God which the icon represents. The icon is the encounter between heaven and earth, now and the fullness of time. This is represented in the icon by the interplay between the sad eyes of Mary upon seeing our situation and the golden background of the icon which symbolizes heaven as our future home. Likewise, this is represented in the expression of fear of Jesus as symbolized by his falling sandals upon seeing the cross and the promise of the victory of resurrection.

Icons are doorway, means of access into the age to come. It is a meeting point and a place of encounter with the communion of saints. It makes Mary Our Mother of Perpetual Help in the icon present to us. We participate in the mystery that is depicted. More than an object, the icon is an event.  An icon is a proclamation.

The shrine for the devotees has also become an icon. The shrine has become a channel of passage from the present world to the eternal where Our Mother of Perpetual Help dwell.

Conclusion:

The icon that devotees, venerate, touch and kiss is a dynamic icon; a living icon, not a dead icon.  It carries with it a rich history, spirituality, theology and sacramental efficacy. It is not a magical object which is inertly imbued with vast power and a miraculous object where we bring our petitions but rather a dynamic icon that enters into our life story.  The icon is the story of our faith; the summary of our salvation. We are invited to participate in this story and journey. We are invited to enter into God’s story, into Mary’s story; to join our story with the story and journey of the icon.

Ultimately, the whole icon points to Christ. Jesus Christ is our way, truth and life. Christ is the Word who came down to us so that we can come up to God.

Joey Echano

(This article is an excerpt from the book Mary of Baclaran: Our Mother of Perpetual Help and Mission Today by Joey Echano, soon to be published)


 

[1] Clement M. Henze, 3.

[2] Fr. J. Ulysses da Silva, C.Ss.R., Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Popular Piety, Campo Grande, Brazil, May, 2014. http://www.cssr.news/2017/12/our-lady-of-perpetual-help-and-popular-piety/

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OlxbVy_AcM&index=3&list=TLGGapvNN1caKwIxOTA1MjAxNw

[4]  Fiore, “The spiritual, pastoral and missionary message of the Icon,”21.

[5] Ulysses da Silva, C.Ss.R., Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Popular Piety

[6] The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God

[7] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 48.

[8] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 48-49.

[9] Miravalle, Mark (June 2006) [1992]. Introduction to Mary: The Heart of Marian Doctrine and Devotion. Foreword by Édouard Gagnon. Goleta, California: Queenship Publishing. pp. 56–63.

[10] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 52.

[11] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 52.

[12] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 50.

[13] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 123.

[14] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 15.

[15]Ulysses da Silva, C.Ss.R., Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Popular Piety, #12.

[16] “Give this message to your mother and to your grandfather: Holy Mary of Perpetual Help requires that you remove her from your house, if not, you will all soon die”. Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 133.

[17] Ulysses da Silva, C.Ss.R., Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Popular Piety, #43.

[18] Pope Francis, “The Church, like Mary, is woman and mother,” Vatican News, 21 May 2018. Accessed at  https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope-francis/mass-casa-santa-marta/2018-05/pope-francis-mass-santa-marta-mary-church-woman-mother.html

[19] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 128.

[20] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 11.

[21] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 14.

[22] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 15.

The Shrine Economy

20170108_151956

Holy Mother of the Redeemer,
magnificent sign of hope,
we entreat you,
come to the aid of your people,
who long to rise again
St. John Paul II.[1]

The explosion of novena in 1948 not just attracted thousands of devotees; it also attracted business and trades people to Baclaran. The arrival of thousands of devotees and pilgrims in Baclaran in 1948 transformed this small village into a center of trade. The devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help powered the economy of Baclaran in the 20th century. Today, the whole economy of Baclaran revolves around the shrine. Manuel Victor Sapitula calls this economy a pilgrimage-based economy.[2] Devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help is the main driving force of this economy.

Up to the beginning of the war, Baclaran was a fishing village. In April 1940, the Chronicles mention of a conflict of the community with some fisher folk who parked their fishing boats on the missionaries’ property near the shores of Manila Bay:

We have had some trouble with the local fishing people who put their boats on our property, claiming that the strip of 33 meters depth inside the fence does not belong to us but to the government. The particular piece in question was given to the government some years ago, but at present efforts are being made to get back the title for such in exchange for a strip on the right side of our property for the new road.

This is the last reference regarding fishing activities along the bay, and subsequent years saw the disappearance of fisher folks and the eventual rise of vendors and business people in Baclaran. The novena explosion in 1948 transformed Baclaran from a fishing village to center of trade. As soon as the thousands of devotees flock to the shrine for the novena, street vendors followed suit. The first reference about vendors in the Chronicles is an entry dated 28 September 1949:

During the week past – a subdivision of Quiapo market has been growing up along Redemptorist [Road] in front of the gate. Someone has counted more than 30 stalls. Many people have expressed disgust at the nuisance – but nothing much can be done about it.

This was just one year and three months after the beginning of the Novena and there were only 30 vendors. The vendors were selling their wares on the main road leading to the shrine aptly called Redemptorist Road.

Before the war, a big part of Redemptorist road was given by the Redemptorist to the government in exchange for the property fronting the sea, which today is the property fronting Roxas Blvd. During that time, Roxas Blvd is where the seashore was. The Baclaran chronicles narrated this event in December 1940,

During December, the President, Manuel Quezon visited one day at the request of Mrs. Cuyugan to inspect the new road (Redemptorist Rd.). The result was that it was decided to make the road 20 meters wide instead of the previous plan which provided for a 50 meter wide Road. The latter would have brought the road almost to the Monastery wall. The property was supposed to be a swap for the land between the Monastery and the New Road being built along the sea wall, now known as Roxas Boulevard, but the agreement had not yet been drawn up.[3]

After the Redemptorist donated a big part of the shrine’s property for the widening of the Redemptorist Road, it became a National Road. It had four lanes for traffic and big sidewalks. With the explosion of the novena after the war, the vendors increasingly occupied Redemptorist road which limited the passage of vehicles. To make the situation worst, scrupulous people tried to make big money out of the situation and of the vendors. This is shown in an incident in 1955 when a group of vendors asked the Redemptorist community of the shrine to charge them for rent. The Chronicles in an entry dated 18 July 1955 explained the situation:

This morning a delegation of vendors came to see the Superior bringing with them a petition signed by 150 vendors. The petition: that we will accept rent from them! It appears that households on either side of the road have been charging vendors up to seventy pesos a Wednesday – payable in advance – for the right to put their stands on the road. As the households have no claim whatever on the road it was quite a profitable revenue – for them. The vendors finally rebelled. They acknowledge us as the true road-owners and ask us to from each vendor a rent of 1 ½ pesos a square metre. Offer accepted.

Today the street vendors are beyond count. They occupy most of Redemptorist Road on Wednesdays and Sundays. The influx of pilgrims in Baclaran not only invited street vendors but a whole system of  economic infrastructure, such as hotels, restaurants, banks, shopping centers, flea market, barber shops, beauty parlors, hospitals and many others. The shrine has stimulated economic transactions in a wide system of exchange. Vendors, traders, business owners and even Muslim merchants has turned Baclaran into a major trading center.

sampaguita_vendor3

While the novena generated this economy, this economy, in turn, contributed to the growth of the novena. Sapitula attributes one of the factors for the Perpetual Help devotions’ success is its recognition of material needs especially in post-World War II Philippines.[4] The emergence of the pilgrimage-based economy had significant impact on the character of the Perpetual Help Devotion itself. Sapitula explains that “[this] demonstrates in spatial terms the melding of the sacred and the material in devotional practice. This indicates a strong link between devotional activity and materiality which can allude to processes called religious commodification.[5] The various manifestations of ‘religious commodification’ are not unique to Baclaran but are found in various shrines and cuts across various religious traditions.[6]

The transformation of Baclaran into trading center also gave rise to spiritual trade where religious stalls sell all sorts of religious articles: statuettes, devotional pictures, candles, shrine water, various designs, sizes and colors of the rosary; various sizes of the baby or young Jesus, statue of some saints, and many others. Today, even Muslim vendors sell many religious articles and pious goods like novena booklets, rosaries and statutes.

Baclaran’s dry goods markets are known throughout the country as a bargain hunters’ haven. Their line of ready-to-wear (RTW) clothing are most sought and haggled for items. It is also has a number of flea markets (tiangges), selling everything from clothes and electronics to home decorations and traditional medicine, which occupied the westbound lane of Taft Avenue. Many of the devotees after praying the novena go shopping to these cheap shops and flea markets around the shrine. This is another reason why devotees go to Baclaran—to buy cheap goods.

vendors

Our Mother of Perpetual Help brought jobs and trade to the small and sleepy town and with it livelihood opportunities especially for the poor mainly through selling of all sorts of things like food, clothes, and electronics. The economic benefits of the devotion/shrine is enormous especially for the vendors and business people. Indeed, Our Mother of Perpetual Help is a gift to the economy of Baclaran and the Philippines.

The shrine herself is a big job creator.  The shrine employs many people. On any given day, almost 100 people work for the shrine from lay missionaries, social workers, secretary, accountant, janitors, security guards, candle suppliers, parking aide, cleaners, janitors, and many others. The shrine directly employs approximately 50 regular and extra staff and working students, and 4 Lay missionaries. Additionally, the shrine indirectly employs people through agencies. They include 9 workers in the public toilets, 30 security guards and 22 regular parking aides. The shrine also provides employment and business for candle makers and suppliers and religious goods suppliers.

The shrine has its own store which sells primarily devotional goods like icons, novena booklets, rosaries, medals, cross and many others. All the profit of the store goes to the box for the poor which fund many social services and programs of the shrine. The shrine also host the Sinirangan coffee shop in it’s Carillon bell tower. All the profit of the coffee shop goes to the farmers in Eastern Samar who were victims of supertyphoon Yolanda in 2013.

Baclaran shrine funded many social services and programs such as Sarnelli Center for Street Children, St. Gerard Family life Center, Redemptorist Skills and Livelihood Center, Medical-Dental Services, Crisis Intervention Center, St. John Neumann Migrant Center and Redemptorist Educational Assistance Program (REAP), feeding programs and other programs. The shrine funded not just the social services and program of the shrine but all the communities of the Redemptorist Vice-Province of Manila—Legaspi, Lipa, Laoag, and the formation of seminarians in its Cubao seminary.

The shrine has also responded to emergency and immediate relief of people who were victims of calamities whether natural or man-made. The devotees were very generous when the shrine tried to raise funds for people who suffered disasters like typhoon, flood, landslide, fire, and others. Through the generous donation of the devotees the shrine has funded immediate delivery of relief goods and longer-term rehabilitation projects for victims of calamities.

Let us not forget the voluntary job in the shrine. The Shrine is home to about 500 volunteers helping in various programs and services of the shrine.  Most of the volunteers offer freely their time and effort, first and foremost, out of their devotion to our Mother and their strong sense of service to others.  In spite of the big number of volunteers, the shrine still needs volunteers. The many programs and services of the shrine are run through the generous efforts of many volunteers. If you would try to monetize all these voluntary work all these years it would amount to a lot of money.

Indeed, the shrine is a major contributor to the economic life in Paranaque and for many people a job creator, not to mention that the shrine is one of the highest taxpayer in the city of Paranaque.

The burgeoning of trade in Baclaran, however, generated some negative social impact. In recent years, Baclaran has been at the forefront of the news because of the proliferations of crime, terrible traffic caused by the clogging of the roads by vendors, uncollected trash which kept piling by the day, the lingering distrust regarding transparency in the collection of fees by Barangay and City officials, the proliferation of pornographic and abortion-inducing merchandise, loud speakers and audio components which create so much noise pollution especially at night and the anarchy in the streets manifested in the never-ending vicious cycle of violence between MMDA and vendors resulting to several deaths and injuries. Unfortunately, the most affected by this social impact are the devotees of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

We can only discuss two of the major side effects here—the problem of vendors and the underground economy.

The Problem of Vendors

The increasing number of vendors and its delinquent consequences has posed considerable problems for the shrine.  A major complaint about the vendors is that they obstruct the smooth entry of the devotees into the shrine.  There is no order among the vendors who just stand right in the path where people are walking. The vendors have also blocked the flow of traffic at the roads around the shrine. Robert Arista Martinez, a devotee, complains in January 9, 2018, “Too much vendor surrounding the area, can’t move my vehicle due to illegal vendor.”[7] The order and cleanliness has also worsened as uncollected trash kept piling by the day. The vendors continuously throw plastic and other trash on the ground which eventually clogs the drainage system.

vendors

The Redemptorist community has always worked in solidarity with other sectors of Baclaran for a permanent solution to the problem of small vendors. The shrine never opposed nor obstructed the deliverance of opportunities for livelihood for the vendors. The shrine has promoted the welfare of the vendors especially the poorest among them who have no other means of livelihood but selling. The shrine has always insisted in the past that it both serves the concerns of the devotees and the vendors. The Redemptorist Community believes that both the concerns of the devotees and the vendors can be responded to without trampling upon the rights and dignity of one over the other.  The shrine, however, has always emphasized that this should never jeopardize the interest of the thousands of devotees and the preservation of the spiritual heritage of Baclaran.

In solidarity with other sectors, the shrine has always sought peaceful resolution to the issue of vendors, albeit a solution that will not desecrate the past honor and dignity of Baclaran. Thus, the shrine has stood strongly against the continuous commercialization, anarchy and desecration of Baclaran.  It has strongly opposed, for example, the planned roofing and turning of Redemptorist Road into a street mall. Repeatedly, we came into clash with the city government regarding this issue. Turning the national road, which is beyond the commerce of man, into a street mall will only compromise the security, safety and access of the devotees to the shrine.

Underground Economy

Another negative repercussion of the pilgrimage based economy is the emergence of underground economy. Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Edgar L. Feige identifies four major underground economies as:[8]

  1. the illegal economy
  2. the unreported economy
  3. the unrecorded economy
  4. the informal economy

The “illegal economy” in the shrine consists of the criminal activities that takes advantage of the thousands of devotees especially the most vulnerable ones. Crime began as soon as novena began in 1948. In Oct 19th, 1949, the Baclaran chronicles reported the first record of arrest of pickpockets in the Church during the Novena. Sadly, this is more rampant today.

The influx of devotees into the shrine has also given rise to increasing incidents of prostitution, pickpockets, snatchers, syndicates like budol-budol, and even professional beggars. Many devotees have fallen victims to these bad elements.  One of the victims, Elvis Salazar Urbina, narrated in September 27, 2015 his bad experience:

[A] peaceful house of our lord but the people around you ..you can’t trust and the security is not meticulous in their safeguarding. A while ago, seafarers day, after mass at 6pm, I went with the crowd  in trying to get close to santo ñino. After I touched santo ñino, when I turned back I realized I was pickpocket together with the ATM card and five thousand pesos cash with receipt. Be aware guys, for the security please be alert especially on Sunday…[9]

Underneath the open and legal economy of Baclaran is an “unreported economy” which consists of income that should have been reported to the tax authority but was not reported. Everybody talks openly, for example, about millions of pesos changing hands in everyday transactions in Baclaran. This refers to unaccounted fees collected from the vendors, drivers and other business people by some persons in authority in exchange for protection. This creates the lingering mistrust regarding transparency in the collection of fees. Nobody knows how much money pass under-the-table and how much the extent of corruption is.

The “informal economy” includes street vendors selling highly discounted copies of films, music CDs, and computer software such as video games, sometimes even before the official release of the title. Many of these vendors are Muslims.

The shrine and its environs were also covertly taken advantage by unscrupulous individuals for immoral activities.  Outside the shrine, there are abortifacients being sold openly on the streets. Some notorious individuals have taken advantage of the large gathering of devotees in the compound of the shrine to do their flesh trade.

To address the underground economy, the community has constantly denounced all acts of corruption in Baclaran whether this is committed on the streets or in big government offices. The shrine has also kept reminding the devotees about the presence and activity of bad elements taking advantage especially of vulnerable devotees. The shrine has often told devotees in between novenas and masses to always keep an eye on their belongings and their loved ones. It has also formulated certain security policies which were announced to the devotees. Obviously, these policies will not prosper without the cooperation and vigilance of all.

The community has also hired more security personnel. The security personnel has increased their visibility inside and outside of the shrine. It has also installed more CCTV cameras in major areas of the shrine. The community has also asked the help of the police in preventing these crimes to occur.

Beyond the Economic Benefits

Despite the enormous benefit that the devotion has brought to the economy of Baclaran, the economic benefits are only byproducts and contingent upon the religious phenomenon. Take away the novena in Baclaran and it is highly unlikely that people will go to Baclaran just to buy goods.

The Baclaran phenomenon is more than just the material and economic benefits that vendors, business people, devotees and Redemptorists have received. The devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help is not just about jobs, travel abroad, passing the examination, healed from sickness. The devotion goes beyond the economic needs. The devotion satisfies a deeper hunger and thirst. Our Mother promises us not to take us from our trials but to assure us of the glory at the end through her son. Valera Michelle expressed it well,

[S]ometimes we need not … ask anything to our [M]other of [P]erpetual [H]elp for she already knew what our heart desires, all we need is just thank her on every visit we made to her shrine…thank you to all the priests and devotees who continue to spread God’s overflowing love and amazing grace!!! 🙂[10]

Joey Echano

(This article is an excerpt from the book Mary of Baclaran: Our Mother of Perpetual Help and Mission Today by Joey Echano, soon to be published)


 

[1] St. John Paul II, Prayer to Our Mother of Perpetual Help

[2] Manuel Victor Sapitula, Marian Piety and Modernity, 139.

[3] Maguire, To Give Missions Wherever They are Needed, 20.

[4] Sapitula, Marian Piety and Modernity, 145.

[5] Sapitula, Marian Piety and Modernity, 145.

[6] Sapitula, Marian Piety and Modernity, 145.

[7] https://www.facebook.com/pg/Our Mother of Perpetual Helpbaclaran/reviews/

[8] Edgar L. Feige, “Defining And Estimating Underground And Informal Economies: The New Institional Economics Approach,” Development and Comp Systems 0312003, EconWPA. <https://ideas.repec.org/p/wpa/wuwpdc/0312003.html&gt;

[9] https://www.facebook.com/Our Mother of Perpetual Helpbaclaran/inbox/?selected_item_id=646908125511183

[10] Valera Michelle, http://www.baclaranchurch.org/testimonials.html

A Shrine of Hope

Mary is the prototype of the hope of grace
for humankind as a whole.[1]

 

Many times as I walk around the shrine after the services at night, I could see devotees deep in prayer and silence. What catches most intensely my attention is the number of people who are crying, pouring their hearts out to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. For many devotees, the shrine has become a channel for pouring out their sorrows and woes, an outlet for catharsis, if you will. They see the shrine as a very important channel where they could pour out their sufferings and agonies and turn to the Lord and Mary which in many cases is their only hope.  Rik Ali Mandi describes this in a thanksgiving letter written on September 23, 2014:

Here in this shrine, I felt peace in my heart. Here in this shrine, I learned to pour out my frustrations and pains in life. Here in this shrine, I left behind all the things that gave me sadness, burdens and woes.  Thus, I give thanks wholeheartedly to you Our Mother of Perpetual Help for the times that you listened to my petitions and afflictions in life, and for giving light to the questions of my life. You taught me the right solutions to the problems I bring to you, guided me towards the right decisions and most of all made me feel that you love me and lead me to the right path in life. Now, as I continue my journey in life, I have complete trust that you will always guide me through my loneliness towards the twilight of my life … I give thanks to you Our Mother of Perpetual Help, many, many thanks.

Through the years, our country has gone through a lot of crisis. Despite the continuous crisis, devotees flock to Baclaran. There is no abatement in attendance, the devotion has not waned one bit.  Someone in the community commented that the more our country is plunged into crisis the more people flock to Baclaran. Indeed, despite the series of crises, Filipinos in their distinctive creativity and resilience in dealing with crisis, can still afford to smile and celebrate.  Filipinos’ resilience is deeply rooted in their faith and devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. This is what Nica Realuyo expressed in her thanksgiving letter on February 4, 2015,

6 years ago after graduating in education degree in our province, I mustered enough courage to go to Manila in order to fulfil my dream to become a flight attendant … I tried several times to apply and several times I failed the pre-screening. I could no longer count from my fingers how many times I was disappointed and thought of giving up and forget all about my dream. In those moments, which I could not accept, I had feelings of resentment for God. I had so many questions. Until one day, I thought of going to Baclaran to pray for many things about my life including my dream. After many years of waiting and several disappointments and rejections, I was accepted by an airline from Middle East … What I have gone through is a witness to the truth that through our persistence and prayer our dreams will be realized … God is good! God bless us all!

Shrine as Icon of Hope

Many devotees see the shrine as a symbol of faith and hope.  As the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Third Asian Congress on Pilgrimages and Shrines declares, “In an era overwhelmed by divisions, acts of violence and natural calamities, pilgrimages and shrines are places of hope which comes from the encounter with God.”[2] In the midst of the many crises and evils that seem to prevail in our times, the shrine has always proclaimed to the devotees to not surrender to apathy and despair. The Redemptorist in their preaching tried to give an account of the hope that they lived and experienced:  “Always be ready to make a defense to anyone who asks for the reason for the hope that is in you” (I Peter 3:15). In the maiden issue of the shrine’s newsletter, The Icon, in October 2003, I wrote about the mission of the shrine,

In the midst of hopelessness, we yearn to be signs of hope; in the midst of gnawing pessimism we want to bring the good news of Jesus; in the midst of a culture that breeds indifference and individualism, we strive to promote dialogue and solidarity especially with the marginalized and most abandoned.  We believe that our devotion to our Mother of Perpetual Help should lead us to a radical renewal of ourselves so we can truly become genuine agents of transformation in church and society.

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In the midst of the suffering and crisis, people come to this church to be inspired and renewed to face their daily struggles. The devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help gives hope to thousands of devotees to not just surrender to the predicament they find themselves in their current situation. As the devotees pour out their sorrows in the shrine, Mary Our Mother of Perpetual Help gives them the hope and strength to continue their struggles and aspirations in the midst of life’s trials and difficulties. Arnel Villena writes in a thanksgiving letter on July 6, 2015,

During those times when I was extremely down, I felt that you always gave me hope and reason to be positive about life. The added strength and new kidney that you attached to my body is a most beautiful sign of your guidance upon me. I will always take care of this. The very good job I have now, is the source of our daily needs, and also a big blessing from you. In addition, you let me experience other miracles. Mother, thank you. I will not forget this.

The Poor as Bearers of Hope

Poverty and hope goes hand and hand in the shrine. Mary under the title of Ina ng Laging Saklolo (Our Mother of Perpetual Help) appeals to many devotees because many of them are helpless and pushed to the limit, in Tagalog—“kapit sa patalim!” (gripping the knife’s edge). When the system is rigged and stacked against their favor, the plea of many devotees is, help me, saklolo! When nothing works for them—the system, the government, politicians, and even the church, they look inward and seek God and Mary’s intervention. Genesis Toledo Lustre demonstrates this plea for help as she writes,

I’ve been to Baclaran church many times especially when I am losing hope in life, I prayed while crying, I couldn’t help myself from crying whenever I come to this church. However, I think I need someone to talk to who is from the Church who can give me advice or someone who will just listen to my story and my questions. I really need guidance, especially now that I am pregnant. Please ..

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Most devotees are poor just barely getting by, surviving on a day to day existence, as we say in Tagalog, isang kahig, isang tuka, (one scratch, one peck) which means hand-to-mouth existence.  Many who flock to the shrine are hungry, thirsty, alienated, depressed, excluded, abandoned and deprived in multiple ways and variety of experiences. The despair that many devotees suffer, is articulated by Cha in her thanksgiving letter on April 29, 2015,

[E]very time I pray to you and to Jesus to help me understand the things that would prevent me from doing the evil thing that I always thought—taking my own life because of the many financial problems—you always let me see how lucky I am because I have a family that I need to love and care for.  My heart breaks when I see the innocent faces of my little children—what will happen to them if I am gone, if I surrender. I pray that you would once again open your heart to me. For the last time, I ask you that you would hear my plea to drive away my financial problem. I pray that you would give me another opportunity to rise up and begin anew … as a mother.

Most of the devotees who flock to Our Mother of Perpetual Help realize how destitute they are whether spiritual or material.  Ironically, it is this poverty that opens their hearts to reach out to God and to Mary and not lose hope. The devotees in their poverty find hope despite the hopelessness they experienced in life.  Indeed, one cannot truly experience God’s perpetual help through Our Mother of Perpetual Help unless one becomes poor. They embody Jesus’ first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5: 2).

Finding Hope in Fellow Devotees

The sick, unemployed, frustrated, lost, loveless, and suffering—destitute as they are, spiritually or materially, they open their hearts to reach out to God and to fellow men and women in despair. They find hope from fellow hopeless devotee.  When one hear the thousands sing and pray the novena in unison one cannot help but experience courage and hope which provide the strength to go on amidst the struggles in life.

This experience of praying the novena as giving hope to thousand of devotees is affirmed by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical, Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope).  In the encyclical Benedict XVI asks:  “How can Christians learn, articulate and exercise this hope in Christ?” To this Benedict responds: “A first essential setting for learning hope is prayer.” When no one listens to me anymore, God still listens to me. When I can no longer talk to anyone or call upon anyone, I can always talk to God.” Prayer can never be merely individual or self-preoccupied; genuine prayer is that which turns us toward others, in solidarity with our neighbor and communion in the Church as Benedict further adds:

Hope in a Christian sense is always hope for others as well. It is an active hope, in which we struggle to prevent things moving towards the “perverse end”. It is an active hope also in the sense that we keep the world open to God. Only in this way does it continue to be a truly human hope.[3]

Defiant Hope

Many devotees have suffered from many forms captivity that have subjugated them for so long. Thus, the plea of the thousands of devotees to Inay ng Laging Saklolo is not just a cry for their needs but is also a cry for liberation. In whatever state of captivity they find themselves, their devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help give them hope and strength not to surrender and continue to struggle.

jpic-lumad

Strengthened by hope, devotees not only pray for what they want, but aim to be set free towards the life they honestly hope to attain.  In this spirit, hope becomes an active disposition–never surrendering to apathy and indifference.  Their hope, directed by Our Mother of Perpetual Help towards the Good News of Jesus Christ, is the refusal to accept the status quo. It is challenging present systems and the wider societal structures in actively bringing about new attitudes and alternative order according to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom.

The Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx states that the most radical form of Christian hope is born in negativity, “amid the experiences of negativity, darkness, and injustice in which human beings cry out in protest: ‘This cannot go on!’”[4]  Hope entails challenging the prevailing values, attitudes, structures and systems that for so long a time preserved captivity and dependence.  As Anthony Kelly declares, “hope refuses to see the ultimate meaning of life as simply more of the same.”[5] That is why hope is always bold, daring and defiant. Kelly adds, “Genuine hope has no use for idols.”[6]  Experiencing hope amidst their despair and hopelessness through their devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help, devotees learned to proclaim the gospel as a counter text to the idols of the world.

Thus, the experience of pouring out of one’s sorrows for many devotees is not just cathartic but also empowering. Fr. Victorino Cueto asserts that through their devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help in the shrine, devotees are afforded “the empowered experience … to put a language into his/her predicament. S/He is able to speak and give voice to his/her experience. A devotee is provided the space to articulate his/her joys and pain, hopes and suffering, desires and dreams.”[7]  In a thanksgiving letter written on August 27, 2014, Michelle Mulingbayan shares this kind of experience in the shrine:

I started coming to you last February 2014 because of a big problem that I was going through during those times with the father of my child. It has been my practise that whenever I experience that kind of feeling, I go to mass or visit a nearby church in order to pour out my sorrows, ask for help and guidance in order to lighten the pain I am experiencing … Almost every night I could not stop crying because of so the unbearable pain. For nine Wednesdays, I did not surrender, and in those times, I gradually felt peace in my heart and mind.  Every time I pray the novena, I feel the warmth of your acceptance and helping hand in order that I might overcome this trial in my life.

A Whole New World: Hope Beyond this World

The hope that the devotees deeply experienced in the shrine is not just optimism or a mirage. As St. Paul said, “hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5: 5).

Looking through the icon, the devotees are led to see an “it-could-be-otherwise” world. Our Mother of Perpetual Help invites the devotees to see behind and beyond their world—with all its sufferings, hardships, hopelessness, injustice, violence, enslavements – in anticipation of a possible world full of possibilities. The icons are an agency of hope, a hope which defies even the most destructive force in our world today that in the midst of the violence, chaos, madness, misery of our lives here on earth, there is a “beyond-this-world” that is totally opposite our world today (magnificat) already growing but will reached its fullest potential through the most creative and dynamic power and grace of God in the end.

As the document, The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God proclaims, “The shrine …  is a sign of that greater hope that points to the final and definitive destination, where each individual will be fully human, respected and fulfilled according to the righteousness of God.”[8]  Amid life’s difficulties, the shrine, an edifice of stone, points to the homeland glimpsed from afar but not yet attained, anticipation of which, in faith and hope, sustains Christ’s disciples on their pilgrim way.[9] The shrine is set as a prophecy of God’s tomorrow in the today of the present world.[10] Every time the community of the faithful gathers together in the shrine, it does so to remind itself of that other shrine, the future city, the dwelling of God, which we wish to begin building already in this world and which we cannot help but desire, filled with hope, conscious of our limitations, striving to prepare as best we can the coming of the Kingdom. [11]

In this spirit, the prayer that the people pray—novena and personal prayers—becomes not just supplication but aspiration. Their prayer serves as a narrative and metaphor, expressions of aspirations of the longed for reality, the desire for new world.  Through their devotion, devotees are invited in hope to see beyond the present age. Our Mother of Perpetual Help invites the devotee to be a “hoper,” who is impatient with evil and death in this present age.

God will make all things new. He is known now in his promises. Hope is what gives us confidence in the possibility that those things which are now so destructive of human well-being will be overcome. Hope speaks to a world vividly aware of the “not yet” dimensions of human and social existence, and of the fact that hope at its human level is of the stuff of meaningful existence. It is hope that changes us, hope that changes the world.

Our Mother of Perpetual Help – Mother of Hope

In the shrine, the poor found Mary when they needed to find a voice, an outlet, an ally.  When they experience Our Mother of Perpetual Help as kakampi (ally), they no longer feel alone. Our Mother of Perpetual Help becomes a symbol of hope and solace to thousands of desperate devotees who come day and night to the shrine. Our Mother of Perpetual Help becomes a mother of hope.

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The life of Mary is hope personified. Mary lived hope because she represented the poor of Yahweh and proclaimed the victory of the Lord against worldly power and domination. Lumen Gentium concludes by calling Mary a sign of hope and comfort for God’s pilgrim people. Mary is the prototype of the hope of grace for humankind as a whole.[12]  Mary embodies the ‘elect Israel’ of whom Paul speaks – glorified, justified, called, predestined. Maria Rina Geronimo describes how Our Mother of Perpetual Help is mother of hope,

The last time that I wrote you, my mind was entirely confused, losing hope and crying. Thank you very much Mama Mary for leading me here in your home during those times when I was truly down … During those moments when my self-esteem was so low, you did not abandon me. Thank you very much Mama Mary because you opened your home to a sinner like me. I am not a prayerful person but because of the things that happened to me, I learned to go to mass and pray. I know Mama Mary that this is one of the ways that you can open my mind and heart and once again become close to you … Take care of me Mama Mary and grant me strength and peace of mind so I can serve the sick. Thank you very much for everything Mama Mary for your help and mercy.

Mary as mother of hope, however, draws devotees ultimately not to herself but to her son Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict calls Mary as star of hope who leads us to the true light–Jesus Christ.

Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope. Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by—people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way. Who more than Mary could be a star of hope for us? With her “yes” she opened the door of our world to God himself; she became the living Ark of the Covenant, in whom God took flesh, became one of us, and pitched his tent among us (cf. Jn 1:14).[13]

The life of Jesus is the hope of the poor, desperate, helpless and abandoned. We can only experience true hope through the fullness of life that Jesus gave us, as St. Paul wrote, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13).

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy, hail, our life, our sweetness and our hope.

 


 

[1] Lumen Gentium, #59.

[2] Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Third Asian Congress on Pilgrimages and Shrines (Nagasaki, Japan, October 15-17, 2007)

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, #34.

[4] Hilkert, “Edward Schillebeeckx,”.

[5] Anthony Kelly, Eschatology and Hope (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), 5.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Victorino Cueto, DEBO(MI)SYON: Celebrating the Spirit in / of Baclaran. Accessed at http://www.baclaranchurch.org/assets/debo(mi)syon-celebrating-the-spirit-of-baclaran.pdf

[8] The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God

[9] The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God,

[10] The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God,

[11] The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God,

[12] Lumen Gentium, #59.

[13] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, #49.

(This article is an excerpt from the book Mary of Baclaran: Our Mother of Perpetual Help and Mission Today by Joey Echano, soon to be published)

A Shrine of Miracles

devotees-abstract

I don’t believe in miracles, I rely on them to get through each day!
– Karl Rahner[1]

 

Many times, Baclaran has been called a shrine of miracles. Many flock to Baclaran because they believe it as a sacred place imbued with special spiritual powers where miracles happen. Kevin Angelo James Francisco wrote on February 14, 2018, “The place where miracles happen! I love you Blessed Mother!”[2] Edwin De Veyra, also wrote on October 11, 2017, “There will be a big miracle in our lives if we go to Baclaran church.”[3] Nelen R. T. Herrera testifies that Baclaran is a shrine of miracles in a thanksgiving letter in November 4, 2017, ·

There were many miraculous answers to my petitions to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Healings, business deals, strength guidance and love. And, twice, I witnessed, people presumably possessed by evil spirits, who became very uneasy and their illnesses seem to surface. Maybe, the power of the place caused them to be uneasy. Baclaran Church magnifies God’s presence and love for us through various and countless answered prayers. Loving Mother, pray for us![4]

Many hope and believe that a miracle can also happen to them when they come to Baclaran shrine: Whether to be healed or to travel abroad or get a job or pass the board exams or have questions answered or to achieve some other spiritual benefit. Jessa Llano writes on Mar 19, 2017 thanking Our Mother of Perpetual Help for a miracle she received,

There is so much joy and happiness inside my heart the day I received a miracle from God. All my fears are gone and eventually fade away. I believe in the miracles of God. And I am more than thankful to you, for always helping me and showing me the right path. As a student, I will never ever forget all the graces I received. Thank you for interceding for me to your divine son Jesus. I will not stop praising you forever till the rest of my life … I love you Mama Mary.

The identification of the shrine as a shrine of miracles began shortly after the introduction of the novena in 1948. The first report of a “miracle” mentioned by the Redemptorist community in their chronicles was in June 20, 1949: “Many favors were granted to her devotees during the Novena. The most striking being, the sudden cure of a case of tetanus and the conversion of another to the true faith.”

There is no official formal declaration from the official Church that the shrine is a shrine of miracles. Not that the shrine need any official declaration nor the devotees demand one. The promise of miracles combined with the conviction that they can easily bring to God whatever needs they have through Mary’s intercession, attract many devotees. Indeed, devotees flock to shrine because they believe that their petitions will reach God through Mary’s intercession. As the American Mariologist Fr. Johann G. Roten states, “There is no sense in prayer, meditation and devotion, if the faithful individual does not have some assurance or moral certitude that his or her act of religion does, in fact, reach the intended addressee.”[5]

devotees_abstract

There has been no report, however, of any extraordinary phenomena or miraculous happenings in Baclaran like apparitions, host with blood, Mary crying in tears of blood, and other supernatural events. There is also no legend or myth that has become part of the oral tradition of the shrine. The only time that the Baclaran phenomenon was associated with an external supernatural activity was during the time of the reported phenomenon of the showers of petals in Lipa in 1948.[6] When the novena exploded in Baclaran in 1948, it was also the time when the reported showers of petals occurred in Lipa.  Fr. Louie Hechanova narrates that during the time, “With the news of the shower of roses in the Carmel of Lipa all over the papers then, ‘a journalist happened to get curious and asked a sacristan in Baclaran what he was looking for.’ ‘Rose petals,’ the sacristan answered. ‘Next day, the daily bulletin reported that petals had fallen in Baclaran!’ This promoted the idea that miracles also occur in Baclaran and consequently, attracted more people to flock to Baclaran.

This reminds me of a widely acclaimed Filipino film, Himala (Miracle) which stars Nora Aunor, Filipina superstar during the 70s and 80s. The movie tells the story of Cupang, a poor and sleepy town in Northern Philippines which suddenly came to life after a reported apparition of the Blessed Virgin to a poor girl named Elsa (Nora Aunor). This drew large numbers of pilgrims to the once barren town boosted by the successful faith healing of Elsa. Soon business people, politicians, media and other people with interest took advantage of the phenomenon. Aghast at all these developments, Elsa near the end of the film, steps on the stage and talks into a microphone in front of thousands of devotees and pilgrims who have eagerly awaited her address. She proclaims: “Walang himala, ang himala ay nasa puso ng tao, nasa puso nating lahat. Tayo ang gumagawa ng himala, tayo ang gumagawa ng mga sumpa at ng mga diyos!” (There are no miracles. It is all inside us… We make miracles ourselves… We pronounce the curse… We create the gods!).

American Professor of Hispanic Studies Frank Graziano defines a miracle in popular devotion as

one that exceeds not the laws of nature but rather the real possibilities of a devotee, which are frequently very limited by people’s low educational level, by poor medical and sanitary conditions because of structural poverty … and by a lack of savings to respond to unforeseen situations.[7]

Indeed, most miracles in Baclaran are the small miracles and internal transformation that happened to the devotees; nothing of the external extraordinary kind. Like the thanksgiving letter of Gabrielle Mindy Uy dated November 3, 2014, where she gave thanks to OMPH for granting an almost impossible favour that she had prayed for a long time.

Thank you very much because you answered what I have been praying for a long time. It seemed almost impossible, but the person I love most came back to me. You answered my prayer and you continue to fulfil what I have asked for. Thank you very much Mama Mary, and may you continue to help those who ask for your help.

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In hindsight, there is no need in Baclaran for one visionary or select few recipients of some extraordinary phenomenon.  There is no need for an apparition to keep people coming to Baclaran. The transformation of Baclaran into a booming town and the transformation of the devotees are themselves the biggest miracles. The thousands of devotees are themselves the witnesses to the graces and presence of God through Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Like Mylene S. Obed who wrote a thanksgiving letter to Our Mother of Perpetual Help:

Our Mother of Perpetual Help hears even the most silent prayers of our hearts… After months of continuous novenas and devotion, I was blessed with a child, who is now a young lady, and we now go together to Baclaran to show our gratitude to this answered prayer.[8]

Marvin Maderas also wrote, “Thru your miraculous intervention we are united once again as a family. Thank you so much Mama Mary for your blessings (my italics).”[9]

Thanksgiving Letters: Testimonies of Miracles?

A major reason why the shrine is called a shrine of miracles is because of the letters of thanksgiving. Many of the testimonials about the miracles in Baclaran are narrated by the devotees through letters of thanksgiving. Jas Aquino, for example, narrates the miracle he received through a thanksgiving letter in September 3, 2015,

Last time I found myself writing here when I was in the most deep and lonely situation. I find comfort in writing and talking to you. I have undergone a difficult time financially and with your help and through your intercession a miraculous help came to me in my darkest hour.  I was approved for my loan at the office. I was able to pay some of my debts and lessen them. I was able to pay for my youngest brother’s tuition and bought him a uniform, because I haven’t paid it for a long time and I just asked for extension to pay … Because of our situation there are times when we don’t have food on the table over the past few months, now we can eat and my kids as well. Thank you for always hearing our prayers. Through your intercession Mother of Perpetual help our prayers is being answered.

Ever since the novena began in the shrine, the Redemptorists have encouraged the devotees to write letters of petitions or thanksgiving to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Devotees can drop these letters to several boxes marked separately for letters of petition and letters of thanksgiving. They are located in conspicuous places in the shrine. Today, devotees can also send their letters of petitions and thanksgiving through the official website of the shrine. This is highly advantageous for OFWs who cannot physically go to the shrine to drop their letters. Indeed, most of the letters received online comes from OFWs.  Ayla Joy, an OFW writing on July 12, 2016, expresses her joy of being able to send letter to Our Mother of Perpetual Help from abroad,

I really wanted to send letter to our Blessed Virgin even though I am far away because I know she is the reason for the many blessings that I have received in my life today. All that I asked from her was fulfilled.  All these blessings I owe to her son Jesus and to the Blessed Virgin. Thank you very much that there is this kind of way for OFW’s, despite that they are far away, they can be able to write their thanksgiving and petitions to our Blessed Virgin.

Every Tuesday of every week throughout the year, the Baclaran Redemptorist community come together to count the number of petition letters and read the letters of thanksgiving received during the past week. Reading through the letters of thanksgiving every week, I can just admire the deep and genuine faith of the devotees. It gives profound inspiration to my own devotion and faith. After reading all the thanksgiving letters, the community chooses the best ones.

All letters are read except for the letters of petitions. The letters of petitions are not read simply because of the sheer number of petition letters received. Reading all the letters of petitions would take almost the whole week.

The selected letters are read by the commentator during the novena and masses at the shrine the following day, Wednesday.  The commentator also announces the total number of letters of petitions and thanksgiving received. The preacher sometimes uses the selected letter as a launching pad for his homily.

letter-to-OMPH

The letters of petitions that the shrine have received throughout these years ever since the beginning of the novena can attest to the various needs that the devotees bring to Our Mother of Perpetual Help along with their trust and confidence in her loving care. On the other hand, the letters of thanksgiving that the shrine have received from the devotees can attest to the many favors that the devotees have received. The letters of thanksgiving attest to the conviction that the shrine is a shrine of miracles.

On any given year, the letters of petitions outnumber the letters of thanksgiving by a huge margin. Of the total letters received every year, 85% to 90% are letters of petitions while 10% to 15% are letters of thanksgiving. In 2016, for example, 136,819 letters of petitions were received which represents 87.83% of the total letters received while only 18,954 letters of thanksgiving were received which represents 12.17% of the total letters received. This does not accurately reflect, however, the actual number of petitions and thanksgiving of the devotees. For one, not all devotees write letters of petitions and thanksgiving to Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

From the thanksgiving letters we read every Wednesday, one important albeit hard insight that devotees learn is that in prayer they receive may not be the answer which they desire, but the answer which God in his wisdom and love knows to be best. Not all petitions from the devotees were answered by God in the exact way and time that the devotees hoped for.  Cecilia and Gerald Salandanan learned this hard truth but their confidence in Our Mother of Perpetual Help never wavered. They share with us their experience through a thanksgiving letter written in September 3, 2014,

After 9 Wednesdays, I did not pray the novena again and I did not return to you as well. Not because I lost hope that you would not answer my petition at that time, but I had complete trust that you will not let me down. Thank you very much for you taught me to be strong and not let my impatience crush my faith. Even if my prayers were not answered immediately, my trust never waned, for all things happen for a reason and all things have an end.  Thank you very much for my husband is finally home after 5 months of sickness, hardship, anger, tears and loneliness. Even though it has been painful and difficult, I believe that all things happen according to the will of God. Impossible things become possible. All is miracle, dear Mother. And I will not be surprised because I know that God the Father and almighty God will make all things to mend our lives through your prayers. 

Even though their prayers were not answered in the way they expected it, Our Mother of Perpetual Help empowers and strengthens them as they continue to hope that God will respond to their prayers in the way that God knows what is best for them.  As the devotees pray in the novena, “Make us aware that God never ceases to love us; that He answers all our prayers in the way that is best for us.” Krystelline Jimenez testifies to this conviction in her thanksgiving letter February 3, 2016,

I have prayed the Novena every Wednesday morning for a couple of years now. Some of my petitions were answered with a “no”, some were “not yet” but most were “YES”. But more than the petitions, the Novena gives me a sense of security, a sense of peace, where nothing could ever go wrong. I thank the Lord and Mama Mary for taking care of me and my family despite my shortcomings. Thank you for my whole life, including the No and Not yets.

There are some devotees where many of their petitions were not even answered. Despite this, they continue to come to the shrine. For them, the warm presence and loving gaze of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is enough as it gives them inner peace and strength. This is the experience of Ritchie Limpin who wrote in July 08, 2014,

For a person who has many concerns like me—a single mom who brings up my children alone, it is only to Our Mother of Perpetual Help that I hold on to. I must admit, there are times that I started to ask myself, what do I get out of coming here besides the profound peace I feel whenever I come to this place? Are there any prayers that she has already heard and come true? Despite all of these, I continue to visit her even though sometimes there is nothing that I can think of anymore to pray for. I just remain sitting or kneeling there and praying the novena.

For the petitions answered, however, they are not just graces coming from God but supplemented by human efforts and cooperation. As the Filipino saying goes, “Nasa Diyos ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa” (Mercy is God’s, action is with people) implies that prayer must be complemented by action and action must be supplemented by prayer. This is the experience of Mr. and Mrs. Rogelio and Jessie Sugcang. For 13 years they were devotee of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. They had a son who was a drug addict. He was living with them. He had two children. Whenever he gets high on drugs, he becomes out of control; he threatens them, he wanted to kill them. For almost four years they prayed to OMPH. For them only a miracle could save their son. Because of their unwavering faith and devotion, the couple’s prayers were answered. His son found a job in the ship overseas. Now their son is successful in his career and living a life guided by Our Mother of Perpetual Help.[10]

Through the various favors identified by devotees in their thanksgiving letters throughout the years, the Redemptorists have come up with classes of favors received by the devotees. There are 17 classes of favors, these are: Spiritual Favours, Conversion, Peace in the Home, Reconciliation, Partner in Life, Health & Recovery from Sickness, Delivered from All Dangers, Gift of a Child and Safe Delivery, Financial Help, Education & Success in Studies Board Exam, Travel Abroad, Local Employment, Overseas Employment, Social Justice & Peace in Society, Legal Favours, and Temporal Favours. The favors that were not clearly identified by the devotees in their thanksgiving letters were classified as unspecified and/or all the blessings.

The table below shows how many favors were received by the devotees per category in 2016.

Favors Answered from the Thanksgiving Letters Received, 2016

  TOTAL Rank Percentage
Total PETITIONS

Mga Kahilingan

136,819
Total THANKSGIVING

Mga Pasasalamat

18,954
Spiritual Favours

Pang- Espiritual na mga Biyaya

910 3 4.80
Conversion / Pagbabalik-loob 116 16  .61
Peace in the Home

Kapayapaan sa Tahanan

328 8 1.73
Reconciliation /Pagkakasundo 123 14  .65
Partner in life/ Katuwang sa Buhay 163 13  .86
Health and Recovery from Sickness

Kalusugan at Paggaling

1,262 2 6.65
Delivered from All Dangers

Kaligtasan sa mga Sakuna

120 15  .63
Gift of a Child and Safe Delivery

Pagkakaroon ng Anak

246 11 1.29
Financial Help /Tulong Pinansyal 376 7 1.98
Education and Success in Studies

Pag-aaral

300 10 1.58
Board Exam/ Pagpasa sa Eksamen 499 5 2.63
Travel Abroad

Pagbyahe sa Ibang Bansa

208 12 1.09
Local Employment / Lokal na Trabaho 589 4 3.10
Overseas Employment

Trabaho sa ibang Bansa

311 9 1.66
Social Justice and Peace in Society

Katarungan at Kapayapaan Panlipunan

19 17  .10
Legal Favours/ Pang-legal na Biyaya 9 18  .04
Temporal Favours

Pang Material na Biyaya

447 6 2.35
Unspecified/ All the Blessings

Lahat ng mga Biyaya

 

13,681

1 72.18

From the table above, we can see that the highest number of favor received was unspecified favors.  13,681 devotees have received it which makes for 72.18% of all favors received. Health favors and recovery from sickness came in second where 1,262 devotees received it which make for 6.65% of all favors received. 910 devotees received spiritual favors which represents 4.80% of all favors received. 589 devotees received local employment which represents 2.63% of the total favors received.

 


 

[1] Karl Rahner’s answer when he was once asked whether he believed in miracles. Accessed at https://www.mary.org/blog/201601/do-you-believe-miracles#.WwX62UiFO70

[2] https://www.facebook.com/pg/omphbaclaran/reviews/

[3] https://www.facebook.com/pg/omphbaclaran/reviews/

[4] https://www.facebook.com/pg/omphbaclaran/reviews/

[5] Johann G. Roten, S. M., Marian Devotion for the New Millennium, Marian Studies, L1 (2000), 65.

[6] The apparition is known in the Philippines for the rose petals which allegedly fell within the vicinity of the monastery; some of these bear religious images, and are held be some to be miraculous. Initially declared “non-supernatural” after a thorough investigation by six Filipino bishops headed by Cardinal Rufino Santos on 11 April 1951, the case was reopened in 1991 with extensive research and investigation. In a reversal of fortune, on 12 September 2015, the Archbishop of Lipa Ramón Argüelles, against explicit direction from the Holy See and the Bishops Conference of the Philippines, formally approved the apparitions, declaring them “supernatural in character and worthy of belief.” On 11 December 2015, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith ruled out that the Marian apparition are definitively non-supernatural based on the coerced negative verdict of six Filipino bishops in 1951 and the alleged confirmation of the same verdict by Pope Pius XII in the 1960s.[1][3] The Archbishop of Lipa received the official copy on May 31 of final verdict. On 1 June 2016, Archbishop Arguelles released a public statement retracting his episcopal judgment on the controversial matter, reverting to the decision issued by the Vatican. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_Mediatrix_of_All_Graces

[7] Frank Graziano, Miraculous Images and Votive Offerings in Mexico (Oxford University Press, 2016), 86.

[8] Jun 6, 2015 http://www.baclaranchurch.org/testimonials.html

[9] Oct 14, 2014, http://www.baclaranchurch.org/testimonials.html

[10] Mr. and Mrs. Rogelio and Jessie Sugcang, http://www.baclaranchurch.org/testimonials.html

(This article is an excerpt from the book Mary of Baclaran: Our Mother of Perpetual Help and Mission Today by Joey Echano, soon to be published)