(Millions of devotees join the procession on the feast day of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, Manila. Photo by Jeff Canoy)
Do not engage in a religious debate; no one wins, it’s been said. But when traveling together with opinionated individuals of different faiths, a heated discussion on religion is bound to happen.
I found myself in this situation after weeks of being with other foreign journalists of contrasting beliefs: Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Christian from a socialist state, agnostic of Jewish heritage, atheist, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican.
I find myself reflecting about my own faith as a Filipino Roman Catholic as we approach the feast day of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, Manila, a day of deep devotion for many, as it is about fanaticism for others.
On January 9th, millions will once again join the procession of the Black Nazarene. They will brave the violent, sometimes deadly, surge of the crowds in a march that may take 18 hours, just to be able to touch the image of the Nazarene to give thanks, to ask for favors, or to seek repentance for sins.
These extreme expressions of faith by Filipinos do not go unnoticed. A journalism fellow asked me, is it true that some Filipinos perform self-flagellation and have themselves crucified just like Christ?
It seemed bizarre to him, but I explained that it is a tradition for some devotees in the province of Pampanga during Holy Week. They believe that it is a way to atone for their sins and be one with Christ’s passion.
There are, perhaps, two things which are most puzzling to a foreign eye: One, are these expressions of blind faith? And, two, do these expressions lead to real conversion?
Individualistic societies may scoff at such intense displays of faith. Some will say that faith has nothing to do with one’s fortune in life – it is a result of decision, action, hard work and perseverance.
Some will question if real spiritual transformation takes place, or do we live out an “a la carte Catholicism.” Are we free to pick and choose the Christian teachings we want to follow, and dismiss others when they are inconvenient?
In one of our heated after-dinner discussions, one journalist fellow asked if, for example, it is acceptable to be a gay Catholic? Enter counter-arguments to the tune of Pope Francis’ recent pronouncement, “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?”
In a similar vein, can a thief forego criminal activities on the feast day of the Nazarene to join the procession, then return to his old ways the next day?
Perhaps, there is no way to explain faith except to live humbly by example. We are all sinners, but we also believe that God’s love and mercy are greater and wider than our sins. And God’s gifts of forgiveness and redemption are open for us to receive freely anytime, and cannot be earned, won or deserved despite the very best of efforts.
I also believe that faith without action counts for nothing. On Sunday’s solemnity of the Epiphany, when the magi saw and worshipped the baby Jesus, they went home using a different route. The encounter with the blessed infant moved them so much, they altered their destiny by taking a new path.
And as today’s Gospel reading of Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fish reminds me, after the five thousand were fed, the disciples filled twelve baskets more of leftovers. God’s love and generosity are more than enough to satisfy us. This is an incentive big enough for us to get up, take responsibility for our lives and do something meaningful for others.