A Shrine of Contemplation

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[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.”

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Memory is the Gratitude of the Heart

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When you work, as we do, in the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help you receive very little feedback as to whether what you do is helping people or not. We know that thousands upon thousands of people come each week to the shrine and we try to satisfy their needs. We read the letters of thanksgiving from devotees who pray hard and get what they are asking for. But this is the result of the prayers of the people and the response of Our Blessed Mother and her Divine Son. So it is very encouraging when on rare occasions we are told by someone that what we did for them really helped them.

One day, when I was passing through the Candle Chapel, I was stopped by a young woman who was lighting a candle. She said “Father I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time now. Six years ago when I was pregnant and my “boyfriend” disappeared, I didn’t know what to do. But I met you and you convinced me to have the baby. Now I want you to meet him. He is six years old, today” Then she called and a little boy came running. She said “Isn’t he wonderful. Will you give him your blessing?” I blessed the little boy, and agreed that he was truly wonderful. They both went away very happy and so was I, even though I have no idea until now, whether I was the person who gave the good advice or not.

Still, even if it was not me, it is good to know that some people do follow our advice, whatever the cost to them in the beginning, and take the trouble to even return to say thanks.

John Maguire, CSsR

(This article is an excerpt from the book National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help: Tips, Trivia and Tribute by John Maguire, Joey Echano, et. al., soon to be published)

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)