Tall tales and the Holy Week

This is my column today.

The most forwarded email since Monday were the columns written by Solita Monsod of the Philippine Daily Inquirer and William Esposo of the Philippine Star facts around the death of Senator Manuel Villar’s brother and about his supposed poor background to boost his presidential bid. Monsod and Esposo presented incontrovertible documents that prove that contrary to the claims Villar made in his political ads, his brother Danny did not die because his family did not have money to pay for his medication nor did he live in abject poverty in the squatters’ area in Tondo.

Villar has countered with a blanket denunciation of his critics. In an interview conducted Sunday at Naga City, he insisted that he and his family were once squatters, that he was born poor on Sta. Maria Street in Tondo, that the nine of them slept together on a single mat and mosquito net. He also insisted that his brother died because they didn’t have the money to pay for the treatment of leukemia. He also said that in no way could the property supposedly bought by his parents at a “later date” in San Rafael Village in Navotas be called living in a posh subdivision.

Villar needs to do a better job at refuting the facts as presented by Monsod and Esposo. His blanket repudiation does not really hack it. Just because someone lived in a squatter’s area does not automatically translate to being poor. In the sixties and even seventies, it was common for families to share a common sleeping mat and a common mosquito net, both of which came in “family” sizes then. A friend who lived in that part of town in the sixties swears that San Rafael Village was an upscale subdivision around that time. And treatment of leukemia was not readily available in 1962. Villar has obviously stretched the truth and adjusted facts to strengthen his image as someone whom the poor can relate with.

I have nothing against people saying they were once (or are) poor—this penchant for false humility and for wearing poverty like a badge are things that many Filipinos consider admirable. However, I don’t think there is something honorable about spinning tall tales and desecrating the memory of one’s dead to advance a political goal.


The Holy Week, which is supposedly the most important and most solemn days for Christians, started last Sunday with the observance of Palm Sunday. For most Catholics, however, the observance only officially starts tomorrow, Holy Thursday, when practically everything in this country is supposed to come to a screeching halt. Factories and offices will be closed to allow Christians to practice their faith. Churches will open doors for various religious traditions that depict the passion of Jesus Christ.

Throngs of people will visit x number of churches for the Visita Iglesia. I don’t really know how many churches are supposed to be visited; some people insist it should be 14 to correspond to the number of stations in the Way of the Cross, some say it should only be seven. The observance of this tradition seems dependent on personal interpretation and comfort much like that tradition about having a certain number of round fruits to greet each new year.

I don’t know what to make though of the recent move of the Catholic Church to make available the Visita Iglesia in the Internet. The web site of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (www.cbcponline.net) features an online Visita Iglesia which takes viewers through seven churches beginning with the Manila Cathedral Basilica. The Stations of the Cross accompany pictures of the façade and the altars of the seven churches. On one hand, I can see how such a service can be of help to people who are sick, or to Filipinos abroad who yearn for the traditional ways of celebrating the Holy Week. On the other hand though, it reinforces the dogma that one needs to be in specifically present in certain churches for one’s prayers to be effective instead of propagating the idea that what really matters is what’s inside one’s heart when he or she prays.

I’ve always felt that devotion and convenience are two concepts that should not and cannot go together. I remember a time when a religious congregation I was part of had this really acrimonious debate over the venue of the annual celebration of our patron saint. It was essentially a contest of wills between two parties—one wanted the celebration held at a place in Quezon City because it was nearer to their places of residence, the other party wanted it in a place in Makati that was more accessible to public transportation and where there was more parking space for the guests. The debate was halted when an octogenarian member of the community stood up to remind everyone that if we were serious and sincere about our devotion to the patron saint, convenience should not even be a factor in the discussion.

Truly, if the devotion is genuine, walking barefoot around Metro Manila to visit 100 churches should be a cinch.

At any rate, all Catholics are supposed to undergo a cleansing process, reflect once again on the sacrifices Jesus Christ offered for the salvation of mankind, and in general, supposed to live a few days in reflection and solitude. Supposedly. In reality, however, most will see the Holy Week simply as vacation time. The mass exodus to the beaches will commence tomorrow. Boracay, Puerto Galera, Bohol and Pagudpud will be teeming with people who will party and frolic all throughout the Holy Week.

I don’t mean to be such a spoilsport but I do hope that people also take time to do some reflection during the period. I am necessarily preaching conversion or asking people to observe Lenten traditions that people don’t feel like practicing. But given how loudly and vociferously we whine and gripe about the sorry state of the country or our predilection to invoke divine intervention over the most minor aggravations, perhaps we can take the time in this season of reflection to actually spend some time in meditation and even in prayer. Perhaps doing so will help many of us see things from a better perspective.

It is my hope that politicians will also take a break from the campaign season and not use the various traditions around the Lenten Season for political ends. Doing so not only smacks of cheap opportunism; it also intrudes into the solemnity of the occasion and more importantly, distracts those who want to observe traditions faithfully.

Unfortunately, many politicians are unbelievably barefaced that they not only make themselves conspicuous by going to churches wearing their campaign get-ups and accompanied by a coterie of supporters, they also distribute flyers, leaflets, and campaign materials around the churches. It can be argued that the leaflets often contain some religious exhortation or some gibberish that they try to pass off as Lenten reflection. However, these leaflets do carry the pictures of the candidates flashing their pearly whites and the positions they are aspiring for so all religious pretensions are unmasked.


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