Pueblo Amante de Maria: A People in Love with Our Mother of Perpetual Help

 [T]he church of the Philippines, as pueblo amante de Maria, “a people in love with Mary,” will always continue to seek her intercession and learn from her way of life what we need to be as a community of disciples. She is truly what her oldest image in the Philippines call her: Nuestra Senora de Guia, Our Lady who guides our way.[2]                  

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The wonderful phenomenon in Baclaran could not have happened without the warm affection of Filipino devotees to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Baclaran is the quintessential expression of the phrase, pueblo amante de Maria, “bayang sumisinta kay Maria,” a people in love with Mary. This is shown by the fact that more than a hundred thousand devotees flock to Baclaran every Wednesday. Numbers alone, however, could not fully define the devotion to Mary of Baclaran. As Fr. Sam Boland affirms,

“Numbers have long since ceased to have much significance in Baclaran. The church belongs to the people, and they are there to be seen and to provide inspiration by a piety that is so visible and so obviously genuine.”[3]

In my almost ten years of ministry at the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Baclaran I have been privileged to witness the outpouring of affection of the Filipinos to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. On any given Wednesday at Baclaran I am always amazed at the sheer faith and resilient hope of the thousands of devotees who flock to the Shrine. Enduring the heat and rain, the traffic, the pollution, the vendors, they make their way to the shrine to pray the novena and celebrate the sacraments of the Eucharist and reconciliation.

Filipinos have taken Our Mother of Perpetual Help into their homes and communities. Devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help has become an important part of the heritage of the nation and identity of the people. It has shaped the Filipino identity and the Filipino culture has shaped devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. A slogan popularized by the shrine captures this special devotion: “Filipino ako, Deboto ng Ina ng Laging Saklolo” (I am a Filipino, Devotee of Our Mother of Perpetual Help). Filipinos are proud to profess it wherever they go, whether here or abroad. It’s almost like being a devotee of Our Mother of Perpetual Help comes with being a Filipino.

Our Mother of Perpetual Help is no longer a Redemptorist franchise. Our Mother of Perpetual Help has become an essential aspect of the ecclesial life of the Philippine church. Almost every parish in the whole country, pray the novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help every Wednesday. Many religious and clergy are devotees of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Indeed, the Philippines is a Marian country.

Philippines: A Marian Country

 The pastoral letter on the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines in 1975, Ang Mahal na Birhen, declares the very special place of the Mother of Christ in the life of the Filipino people.[4] The letter particularly notes the deeply rooted veneration to Mary in the socio-religious structure of the Filipino Christian family: “A familiar sight in many homes, even of modest income, is what can be called the ‘family altar.’  In most families the image venerated is the image of the Virgin Mary under one of her familiar invocations.”[5] Mary’s special place amongst the Filipinos is also expressed in the patronage of Mary in many local churches all over the country:

“[A] very large number of parishes are dedicated to the Mother of God under one of her many invocations.  Four hundred sixty-three, or over one-fourth of all parishes, have the Virgin Mary as their titular patron without counting innumerable barrio chapels, religious oratories or private shrines dedicated to her.”[6]

Over 100 of the parishes honor the Immaculate Conception, over 60 are dedicated to Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, while others carry various titles like the Assumption, Our Lady of Carmel, Mother of Perpetual Help, Our Lady of Lourdes, etc.[7]  The various manifestations of popular piety towards the Mother of God appear not only in the number of churches, chapels, or shrines consecrated to her, but in many other forms, ranging from the liturgical celebration of her feasts throughout the year to religious calendars with the holy picture of Mary — not always of the most artistic nature, it must be acknowledged — in the most humble nipa huts or in the slums of the cities, to her picture in public vehicles, buses or jeepneys.  Grottoes dedicated to the Immaculate Conception under the invocation of Lourdes are found in private gardens or in various public places, along the roads or in corners of modest dwellings.[8] The endless symphony of Marian names in the baptismal records of our parishes … It may be safely said that of the names of saintly women imposed in Baptism, none is more frequently found than the name of Mary either expressly or in one of her many titles.[9]

But what is behind the Filipinos as “pueblo amante de Maria”?  What is behind the Filipino people’s exuberant zeal for Mary?

Drinking from their Own Well: Wellspring of Filipinos’ Love for Mary 

Religiosity is deeply embedded in the Filipino psyche.  Filipinos are deeply spiritual and religious people even before the Spanish Friars came to transplant Christianity to the country. According to V.G. Enriquez, Filipinos had their own native religion before Islam and Christianity came to their land. This was a monotheistic religion based on the belief on a Supreme Being.[10] While Z. Salazar states that the faith of the early Filipinos was based on the belief in anito which is considered as pure soul, pure spirit and God.[11] Likewise, J.C. Sevilla asserts that the native Filipinos have many religious rituals like devotion before the Spanish missionaries came.[12]  The subterranean religiosity and animistic belief did not disappear even after 400 years of Christianity as Leonado Mercado declares, “The Filipinos are animists in their heart despite the 400 years of Roman Catholicism.” [13]

The rich pre-Spanish religiosity of the Filipinos presents a very important premise. As with every culture and people, the indigenous Filipinos were not tabula rasa in terms of worldview and belief before the Spanish colonizers and missionaries came. Filipinos received Catholicism in the milieu of their indigenous religion and culture which they never relinquished even up to now.  Ironically, the indigenous religion of the natives, the very stamp which the Spanish missionaries have fought so hard to eradicate, became the source of hospitality for the natives in receiving the new faith. Hospitality of the Filipinos, therefore, was not just the welcoming of the foreign but also making the foreign religion their own in the context of their indigenous beliefs and religiosity.

The Christian proselytization of the Philippines was therefore not based on an unequal negotiation where only one has the goods while the other has nothing to offer. This belies the notion that the Spanish missionaries brought Christianity to a waiting Filipino natives who had nothing to offer to the missionaries in return.  In other words, it was not merely a giver-receiver relationship. Native Filipinos had their native religion and culture while Spanish missionaries had their Spanish culture and Catholic religion. Christianity as represented by the Spanish missionaries and indigenous religion as represented by the Filipino natives benefited from a process of mutual conversion during the beginnings of Spanish colonial era in the Philippines.  Thus, the Christian evangelization in the Philippines was a two way process.  The Spanish colonizers brought Christianity to the islands to transform the indigenous religion of the natives but in the process the indigenous religion also transformed Christianity. This mutual conversion became the unique stamp of Christianity of the Philippines today.

The above premise is essential in understanding the early Filipinos’ embrace of Mary. The Filipino natives attributed to Mary some of their ancient beliefs and rituals. Karl Gaspar, for example, contends that the Filipinos’ penchant for Mary can be rooted to indigenous Filipinos’ worship of indigenous goddesses. The matriarchal belief system that arose since the beginning of cultures privileged not just the notion of a female deity but a most highly revered Mother Goddess.[14] Gaspar argues that this expression of the “feminine principle” is integral to the pre-conquest ancestors’ indigenous belief system.  Like many other traditional societies, the feminine principle within indigenous Filipino’s belief system is manifested in the matriarchal elements in their culture.  Manuel Victor Sapitula also argues that the “feminine principle” strongly resonates with the devotion to the Virgin Mary.[15] Comparing among religious traditions, the figure of the Virgin Mary is analogous to a number of female divine figures and deities.[16]

The feminine principle of Filipino indigenous spirituality is further manifested through the work of indigenous priestesses called babaylans. Babaylan is a Visayan term identifying an indigenous Filipino religious leader, who functions as a healer, a shaman, a seer and a community “miracle-worker” (or a combination of any of those).[17] The Northern Tagalog Region equivalent of babaylan is katalonan. The word “katalo” means “in good terms with.” The babaylan were predominantly female. Gaspar claims that there are males who appropriated this role but they had to speak, dress up and gesticulate like women.[18]

Spanish Times: Marianization of Filipino Religiosity or Filipinization of Marian Spirituality?

When the Spanish missionaries came in the 16th century, the Filipino’s embrace of Mary was one of the key factors to the widespread and surprisingly peaceful Christianization of the islands. This position is the main thesis of Pedro Vasquez Zafe’s dissertation on the role of Marian devotion during the Spanish evangelization of the Philippines:

“The early missionaries who came to the Philippines from Spain from the very beginning found that the devotion to the Blessed Mother was so readily received by the natives, that they increasingly made it a significant part of their evangelizing work.”[19]

The Filipino Catholic faith would not be like as it is today if not for the Filipino’s warm devotion to Mary, Zafe argues.

“[T]he Philippines would not be what it is now-the only Catholic nation in the Orient-were it not, as history testifies, [due] to the many interventions of Mary in answer to the tender and filial devotion which the Filipino people professed towards her.”[20]

Zafe describes further how the Spanish missionaries were so pleased about the natives’ very eager reception to the devotion to the Mother of God everywhere in the islands.  Filipinos were taught and with great readiness adopted practices of Marian devotion: prayed the Rosary specially, joined Marian associations the missionaries organized, venerated Marian images, and those who had acquired reading and writing skills, read devotional treatises and other books on the Blessed Virgin Mary.[21] Marian shrines were built and multiplied rapidly throughout the islands. Marian images were venerated from the earliest period of evangelization; each image “had its own story to tell”: stories of faith and its rewards, stories of devotion and love and its blessings, stories of prayers offered and wonders wrought-miracles duly recorded, investigated and given credence by church authorities, all received through the intercession of the Blessed Mother, revered in so many of her images, invoked under her different names.[22]

Catalino Arevalo also commented about how visitors from Europe going through the city of Manila, and through many other towns in the evenings during the Spanish times, were amazed upon hearing the rosary recited in every house they passed. On barges and in boats bringing people from place to place, travelers would sing hymns to Our Lady, and pray the Hail Mary’s of the rosary through much of the journey.[23] At daybreak, the town’s leaders and its students would gather at the church for the Angelus and rosary, and on given days, the Mass. In the afternoons, as the day was ending, once again, the Angelus and the rosary, with practically everyone among the townsfolk participating. Before the families slept at their homes for the night, before the church doors shut for the day, there would be devotions once again, ending (as the canonical hours do) with hymns to the Mother of God, the Salve Regina above all.[24]

Ang Mahal na Birhen also affirms the early Filipinos’ warm reception to Mary.  The Filipinos’ warm reception to Mary during the Spanish times was shown through the establishment of many religious and lay orders and sodalities dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the mid-eighteenth century:

“[T]he first Filipino congregation for religious women, dedicated from its beginning to the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Philippines, popularly known as Religious of the Virgin Mary … the Barangay Sang Birhen, the Sodality of Our Lady, the Legion of Mary, the Association of the Children of Mary Immaculate, are [all] fruits of the same devotion and have contributed in their own way to the development of Christian life in the Archipelago.”[25]

While Zafe and Arevalo positively described Filipino’s warm reception to Mary during the Spanish times, however, they never linked it with the Filipino’s inchoate religiosity and archetypal worship of mother goddess. Could it be that the feminine principle of Filipino indigenous spirituality prepared them for the warm acceptance of Mary during the Spanish evangelization? Zafe and Arevalo are silent about this.

Gaspar, on the other hand, asserts that the native’s indigenous worship of a Mother Goddess transferred to a Marian devotion during the Spanish times, like the case of Nuestra Seňora de Peňafrancia, known as Ina throughout the Bicol region.[26]  Sapitula concurs with Gaspar by asserting that the story of the devotion of Bicolanos to Nuestra Seňora de Peňafrancia shows how the local population re-appropriated conventional Marian symbols within their own cultural notions, despite attempts by Spanish missionaries to “domesticate” her according to their own categories of passivity (see Brewer 2001).[27]

Sapitula further expounds that the veneration of images of Christ, Mary and the saints became the replacement for the pre-conquest practice of worshipping larawans (animist images). The predisposition toward iconic representations of divine power enabled the local population to identify with Christian images as replacements of their pre-conquest divinities, as these were absorbed into their existing indigenous sacral iconography (Mojares 2002).[28] Similarly, the Spanish missionaries found great potential in the work of babaylans in propagating devotion to Mary. The missionaries effectively attributed the work of Babaylan the meaning of Marian beliefs. They substituted pagan practices done by babaylans with devotion to the Virgin May but serving the same function.  An example of this is recounted by the Jesuit missionary chronicler Pedro Chirino:

A plague of locusts had been doing great damage in the island for two years.  In order to obtain from God a remedy for this evil, they chose the most holy Virgin Mary as their intercessor, and made a vow to celebrate the feast of her most pure Conception, and to give on that occasion liberal alms as aid for the marriages of the poor and the orphans.  They fulfilled their promises, and our Lord received their humble service, showing them that He was well pleased by turning aside the locusts from their crops, and giving them that year very abundant harvests.  All the people of the village have now directed to the Church that recourse and dependence which they formerly had on the ministers of the devil.[29]

When the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help arrived in the Philippines in 1906, profound affection to Mary was already deeply ingrained in the Filipino consciousness. Filipino’s affection to Mary during the Spanish times rooted in their inchoate religiosity and archetypal worship of mother goddess made easier for the formation of devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Despite that Our Mother of Perpetual Help is different from the images and statues of Mary they venerated during the Spanish times, Filipinos embraced the icon as it appealed to them as the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Filipinos’ devotion to Mary has contributed greatly to sustaining the Catholic faith in the Philippines. Ang Mahal na Birhen recognizes this important reality. Mary has been, and remains, a central inspiring force among the masses of our people in “the preservation of our Catholic Faith, and the principle of deeper and fuller evangelization”[30]

I have personally witnessed this many times when I gave missions to the people living in far flung areas. Attending mass was practically impossible for them. The only means that sustain their spiritual hunger is their devotion to Mary through the rosary, processions and the novena. Even where religious instruction among Catholics is inadequate, the Filipino always holds on to the devotion to Mary as a source of inspiration and an aid to salvation.  This devotion, even in an imperfect form is a positive asset that we pray will always be ours.[31]

Conclusion

There is a profound source for the warm affection of the Filipinos to Mary. The wellspring of Filipinos’ affection for Mary is rooted from their indigenous culture and religiosity.  God has planted in the hearts of the Filipino the love and affection for Mary even before the Redemptorist arrived in the Philippines in 1906; even before the icon was brought to their homes and even before the novena was prayed in the churches of Redemptorist and all the churches in the Philippines.

Today devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help is the most popular Marian devotion in the Philippines.

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[1] The expression, “Pueblo amante de Maria” were originally words found in a Eucharistic hymn (written in 1937) often sung in the Philippines when Spanish was more understood than it is at present: “a people devoted to Mary, a people who love Mary.” See Catalino G. Arevalo, S.J., Mary in Philippine Catholic Life, Landas 14 (2000): 106-116, 106.

[2] PCP-II, #153.

[3] Fr. Sam Boland, CSsR, Redemptorist in Luzon

[4] Ang Mahal na Birhen: Mary in Philippine Life Today, A Pastoral Letter on the Blessed Virgin Mary,

Manila: Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, 1975, #3.

[5] Ang Mahal na Birhen, #13

[6] Ang Mahal na Birhen, #6

[7] Ang Mahal na Birhen, #7.

[8] Ang Mahal na Birhen, #14

[9] Ang Mahal na Birhen, #15

[10] Enriquez, V.G.  (1994).  Indigenous psychology and culture.  Nasa:  Pagbabagong dangal :  Indigenous

psychology and cultural movement.  Quezon City :  Akademya ng kultura at sikolohiyang Pilipino.

[11] Yabut, “Apung Mamacalulu,” 2-3.

[12] Sevilla, J.C. (1982). Filipino religious psychology: A commentary. Nasa R. Pe-Pua (pat.), Sikolohiyang

Pilipino: Teorya, Metodo at Gamit. [pp. 306-314]. Lungsod Quezon: University of the Philippines

Press.

[13] Mercado, L. (1977) Retrospect:  Some comments on Filipino religious psychology.    Nasa L. Mercado (pat).  Filipino Religious Psychology:  Kumprensyang Rehiyonal sa Sikolohiyang Pilipino (pp180-188).  Tacloban City:  Divine Word University Publications.

[14] Karl Gaspar, Embracing the Mother’s Perpetual Compassion: The Specific Place of Our Mother of Perpetual Help Icon-Novena in the Philippines’ Varied Marian Devotions,6.

[15] Sapitula, 97.

[16] Sapitula, 98.

[17] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babaylan

[18] Gaspar, Embracing the Mother’s Perpetual Compassion, 11.

[19] Zafe, Marian Devotion: Its Role in the Evangelization of the Philippines, 150.

[20] Pedro Vasquez Zafe, Marian Devotion: Its Role in the Evangelization of the Philippines [Dissertation presented to the Faculty of Sacred Theology]. Rome: Pontifical University of Saint Thomas, 1968, 154.

[21] Zafe, Marian Devotion: Its Role in the Evangelization of the Philippines, 105-17.

[22] Zafe, Marian Devotion: Its Role in the Evangelization of the Philippines, 105-17.

[23] Arevalo, S.J., “Mary in Philippine Catholic Life,” 110.

[24] Arevalo, S.J., “Mary in Philippine Catholic Life,” 109.

[25] Ang Mahal na Birhen, #21

[26] Gaspar, Embracing the Mother’s Perpetual Compassion, 14.

[27] Sapitula, 110.

[28] Sapitula, 103-104.

[29] Pedro Chirino, SJ., Relaciόn de las Islas Filipinas y de lo que en ellas han trabajado los Padres de la Compaňia de Jesŭs (2nd ed.; Manila, 1890), 74 – 78.  Taken from John Shumacher, SJ., Readings in Philippine History, Quezon: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1979, 76, #43

[30] Ang Mahal na Birhen, 72-73.

[31] Ang Mahal na Birhen, #63.

(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)

 

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