IT’S BLISTERING NEAR the hill in the clearing of the town. Even in the scorching heat of the sun, a macabre atmosphere seems to emanate from the sound of bamboo-laced whips hitting the wounded backs of penitents whose feet drag across the blood-splattered roads. Blood glistens on the backs of the supposed conscience-stricken men, as they continue to whip themselves, face hidden behind cloths tied on their heads, while people continue to look on. The town of Cutud in San Fernando, Pampanga usually doesn’t have enough attractions to draw tourists but today, just like any Good Friday, throngs of people are starting to trickle in.
A staunch Catholic country, the Philippines features numerous re-enactments of the Passion of Christ in the form of plays. However, none are more so graphic than the senakulo held here. Every Good Friday morning, penitents flagellate themselves on the street to do an impression of the Lord’s suffering. The backs of these men are first wounded with a brush with metal spikes to let the blood out, before they walk along the town’s narrow roads whipping themselves. It’s a gruesome sight, with blood sometimes splattering onto unsuspecting onlookers.
The penitents are driven to this masochistic affair because of the belief that this would bring them fortune. Others, just thankful to be alive, choose to express their gratitude in the most morbid way possible. Ruben Enaje, whose job as a sign painter barely makes ends meet for his family, has been participating in these rites regularly after a near brush with death years earlier.
The Catholic Church, meanwhile, vehemently discourages the practice, especially now that it has become some form of entertainment. “What is bad here is if you want to be crucified to become famous or earn money… being crucified becomes an entertainment,” says Fr. Francis Lucas, executive secretary of CBCP-Episcopal Commission on Social Commission and Mass Media. “It is no longer part of the original objective to depict the sufferings of Jesus Christ.” It’s not hard to see his point. The place is packed with media, tourists with cameras, and stalls selling a number of products, from food to prepaid SIM cards. Besides, the idea of crucifying oneself is redundant, since its purpose of cleansing away one’s sins has been done by Christ, the Catholic Church adds.
The Department of Health also frowns on the self-flagellation and the crucifixion rites. Penitents jeopardize their health due to the unsafe nature of wounding themselves or nailing themselves to the cross. According to Health Secretary Enrique Ona, allowing oneself to be nailed risks permanent damage to the hands and feet.
Despite the warnings, the show goes on. Near the hill where three crosses are set up, I and a friend position ourselves, along with dozens of spectators, beside the path where these devotees would march. Our other companion is somewhere, lost in the midst of the crowd. At 1:30 in the afternoon, a procession starts. Men dressed as Roman soldiers accompany Enaje to the top of the hill, along with two other penitents. A few minutes later, a man is nailed on the left cross, followed by another man on the right cross. Enaje, dressed as Christ, is nailed last on the center cross, his ghastly screams echoing throughout the venue. Prayers are said for a few minutes and a sound effect of thunder booms from the speakers. Enaje screams once more before the Roman soldiers take him down.
“This ends the crucifixion rites,” a man announces through the speakers. “But we have more penitents who will be nailed on the cross in a while.” One of those penitents is a woman in her late 40s. The woman is a faith healer who has been nailed regularly for the past few years. My legs are aching from having to stand for close to two hours and my face is burning from the intense heat. I ask my friend, “You want to stay for that?”
Her face also now burning red turns sour. “Let’s go.” She doesn’t say it, but I think we both agree we’ve had enough sight of blood.
First published in Travel Blog on March 29, 2013.