Sunday, January 11, 2015

Higher expectations


My January 11, 2015 column.
Our authorities and some pundits have been crowing about how the annual celebration of the Feast of the Black Nazarene held last Friday was supposed to be a dry run for the impending visit of Pope Francis to the country this week. 
It’s either of two things.  One, our authorities and these pundits are clueless about what really goes on during the translacion of the image of the Black Nazarene from the Quirino Grandstand in Luneta, to the streets of Manila and Quiapo, before finally ending up at Quiapo Church. Or two, our authorities are preparing to do either nothing, or to go overboard in terms of the preparation for the visit of the leader of the Catholic church. 
I have been attending the annual translacion of the Black Nazarene for the last eight years so I can say this with some degree of confidence:  There is very little direct intervention done by authorities during the annual translacion aside from setting barriers and perimeter fences, providing security posts, and the like.  In fact, I doubt if there is really anything authorities can do other than provide a sense of psychological security and comfort through visibility.  Last year, authorities watched helplessly while devotees started the translacion earlier than scheduled - and not even waiting for the mass to be over before starting the procession.  In 2013, authorities could not do anything either as devotees insisted on continuing with the translacion even when the wheels of the carriage carrying the venerated image had already broken down; the priests and the organizers were forced to get down the carriage as devotees simply took over and went on with the procession despite the very real threat of the carriage disintegrating into pieces in the middle of the event.
The millions of devotees, majority of which are men, who participate in the annual translacion transform into a seemingly senseless mob that crawls, stumbles and scrambles forward inch by inch while constantly teetering at the brink of total anarchy.  It is probably proof of divine intervention that the body count is mercifully kept very low each year; authorities cannot claim credit for establishing order or sobriety because there truly is none.  The Feast of the Black Nazarene operates mainly on the principle of method to madness.
Heaven help us if the kind of piety and the level of devotion that is displayed during the Feast of the Black Nazarene is offered to Pope Francis by the Catholic faithful in this country next week.  This pope may be renowned for being gracious and tolerant and for not being finicky, but I doubt if he would have the stamina to brave millions of people shoving and scrambling over one another just to be able to kiss, touch, or hug him.  I also seriously doubt if the Vatican would allow having the Pope exposed to such a security nightmare.    
This is not to say, of course, that there is nothing that can be done to manage the Black Nazarene mob.  The key is political will and a concrete plan of action that has the support of the major stakeholders.  But this is based on the assumption that we do want to manage or control the phenomenon.  Quite frankly, I am convinced that our authorities don’t really want to interfere directly for a number of reasons.  First, most of us tend to believe superstitious beliefs that are based on events that happened during the translacion regardless of whether we are devotees or not.  For instance, it’s supposed to be a harbinger of bad times for the country if the venerated image is faced with major obstacles during the translacion.  Second, it’s difficult to argue with faith and piety.  Third, politicians don’t really want to earn the ire of millions of Black Nazarene devotees, most of whom are voters as doing so is tantamount to political suicide. 
I do hope that our authorities have something better set in place for the Papal visit than what is usually seen during the Black Nazarene traslacion.  I doubt if the faithful who will attend the papal masses would display the same level of fervor and devotion so the preparations will have to take on a different approach.  What really causes aggravation and gets people all riled up during mass events in this country is the utter lack of organization.  The focus should be in ensuring order and ease of movement for everyone more than security.  So unlike during the Black Nazarene traslacion, we would want authorities to not just be visible, but to actively direct and manage people during the papal events.

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