Filipinos and devotion

by Ronnie Hoyle

THE Roman Catholic calendar of events each year is closely followed by Filipinos, since religion plays an essential part in the everyday life of most families: many homes and businesses have their own private shrines where the devoted pay homage each day and seek the blessings and intervention of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and a host of other venerated saints when dealing with God.

For Westerners, who are not so committed to religious conviction, it may seem strange that belief has such a firm grasp on Filipinos but, in most cases, this is what holds families so strongly together, just as Buddhism does in Thailand and elsewhere and as Shinto – “the way of the gods” – does for many people in Japan.

Life for most Filipinos revolves around the local church or chapel, and to have someone in the immediate family employed in the work of the church, even in a limited way, is the source and summit of pride in the community, which is partly why many families feel obliged to send sons or daughters away to become nuns or priests.

The main source of guidance in the morals of the family, the church also provides much of the education for Filipinos and – although not dictated or imposed by the State, which constitutionally allows religious freedom – it is generally looked upon by the State as the main religious institution and the second authority on the provision of education: many of the universities in the country were established by church authorities and are still controlled and financed by the church.

In a country where the people feel more poor compared to Westerners, religion provides a basis for hope for a better future as well as stability in the present and a certain amount of backing when confronted by the few extremely rich, powerful - and often corrupt - people of their own country.

The church also attempts to play a great part in State affairs and is not reticent about supporting a particular political candidate and urging their congregations to shore up their choice as well. Cardinal Jamie Sin, then head of the church in the country, even sanctioned and urged the public in newspapers and over radio to back the EDSA Revolution which deposed dictator President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and resulted in the birth of the ‘people power’ movement.

Filipinos were properly converted to Catholicism in 1565 when it was superimposed on their previous animistic and pagan traditions by the Spanish priests who travelled with Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, who first landed on Bohol before reaching Cebu.

Priests, who escorted Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 on the first epic round-the-world voyage of discovery, had attempted to do this in Cebu itself that year, but 40 years later the old gods had taken over again: nowadays it is estimated that some 84% of Filipinos are Catholic, although elements of animism are still evident in many other superstitious beliefs and practices.

Previous to the introduction of Catholicism, many of the southern islands were composed of practicing Islamizes, influenced by traders from Borneo and Indonesia. They still have a strong control over many people living in some areas of trouble-torn Mindanao, the Sulu islands and the southern half of Palawan, although they only represent approximately 4% of the total population according to government figures.

For Filipinos, organizing most other events outside of those controlled by the church calendar has to have the blessing of the Catholic Church and fit in with their functions, even to the extent of having a priest attend outside events to sanctify them and to keep away bad spirits…one of the indications that many ancient superstitious beliefs are still alive and have not been completely eradicated.

Combining the various belief systems which operate in the country and making them work with each other does not appear to be too difficult for Filipinos, even when their structure of Catholicism differs from its original European form to a great degree.

People who profess to be Catholics one minute can also incorporate Taoism from Chinese origins the next, with beliefs in propitious dates and events, and then accept Shamanistic attitudes and conviction in supernatural spirits from centuries-old former hunter-gatherer lifestyles a few minutes later. They will often go to a local Shaman instead of going to the doctor to cure some illnesses.

This particularly seems to apply to the diminutive Negrito tribes of Negros who, some anthropologists’ think, may have come out of Africa intact with their religiosity, or to have migrated from the mainland Malaysian peninsular and the still animistic Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, in prehistory.

One of the widely accepted beliefs in several rural districts of the Philippines is that some subordinate – or ancestral - spirits live inside trees or other natural phenomena and must be appeased or they will cause mischief: thus, offerings of fruit and flowers, together with prayers, are often made before some trees are felled, while permission must be asked before walking past their abode, particularly at night.

Trees are especially thought to be the ‘homes’ of the hundreds of ‘white lady’ ghosts which are believed to haunt the region, according to local chikka-chikka or gossip.

Superstitions concerning ‘the other world’ are legion in the Philippines with belief in creatures like the Wak-wak – a sort of vampire which eats babies, especially on moonlit nights and around Halloween on the dreaded voodoo-like island of Siquijor, which most Filipinos refuse to visit – as well as the Aswang – a human-hunting sort of big cat - and the Sigbin…supposedly a form of spirit-like kangaroo creature which also enjoys nothing more than snacking on a bit of mortal flesh and then disappearing back into the underworld.

Unfortunately, none of the creatures have ever been captured, either in person or on film, along with their many other counterparts in myth and legend across the islands, although there are always stories of someone who knows someone who knows someone else who…you get the picture?

The Catholic Church has tried for nearly six centuries to drive away these ghastly ghouls of the past which still seem to plague the present population, but so far without too much success.