Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — On the surface, the Christian faith appears ingrained in the lives of many Filipinos, with over 80 percent of the Philippine population identifying as Catholic. Every Sunday, families gather together and pack their local parishes; priests preach with conviction to a committed flock; and choirs sing with devotion within churches adorned with images of angels, saints, and a crucified God.
Commemorating the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Holy Week in the Philippines naturally comes with rituals and observances practiced by millions of devotees. Visiting several churches on Maundy Thursday, performing the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, attending a solemn vigil on the night of Black Saturday: these are typical traditions that allow the faithful to reflect, repent, and remember the meaning of the sacrifice made by the God they worship every Sunday.
But with most Filipinos born into the faith, one might wonder whether Holy Week is still truly sacred to those that call themselves Catholic. How do Filipinos really feel about a week filled with religious rituals that have been around all their lives? Do they indeed deepen the faith of the people, or are they met with indifference? Why do some people refuse to participate in these ceremonies and leave the faith they inherited altogether — risking the disapproval of their families and communities?
Engaging these questions, we asked a mix of believers and non-believers to share their thoughts on the meaning of Holy Week and the pervasiveness of religion in the Philippines.
Ray Aguas, theology professor
I don’t think Holy Week is particularly sacred for people, especially the younger generations. If they go to church, I doubt it’s out of a sincere desire to pray or reflect. It’s typically because parents make them go. Everyone thinks of it as more of a vacation, I think, rather than a genuinely serious encounter with the sacred. Maybe they never really grasped the real meanings because they were not taught well. Perhaps there are too many distractions now, like cellphones or Netflix. For a lot of people, religion is something inherited and is more a sociological fact rather than a conscious choice.
I consider ordinary time more meaningful than Christmas or Easter. The start and end of Jesus’ life wouldn’t be meaningful for us without the life he lived in between. That’s what defines Christianity for me — how we are to live, rather than the fact that Jesus was born or died and rose again.
Bianca Suarez, research associate
The religious aspects of Holy Week don’t matter to me because religion doesn’t. I don’t believe in religion because it doesn’t make sense, and I believe it mostly does more harm than good. In the Philippines, religion is so important that it becomes blinding to those who believe it and suffocating to those that try to do things against it. It becomes another meter to judge people by. However, the cultural aspects to these religious events matter to me because they help me connect with people and identify with them.
Idem Joson, law student
For Catholics like myself, Holy Week is a sacred commemoration of the greatest and most radical form of love — God offering his only Son out of love for all humankind. We cast our gaze upon Christ on the cross and remember that we are called to love as he did, to live our lives as a response of love to God’s ultimate sacrifice.
Complicated as it sounds, reflecting on this truth during this time grounds me and helps me grasp my place in the greater scheme of things. This is why I think it remains to be a very meaningful time for many people.
"I consider ordinary time more meaningful than Christmas or Easter. The start and end of Jesus’ life wouldn’t be meaningful for us without the life he lived in between." — Ray Aguas
Therese De Silva, multi-disciplinary development worker
For me, religious traditions feed our longing to cope beyond something that is inherently logical and can be a healthy tool to process our struggles. It has its cathartic purposes. Some traditions make sense, while some do not and do not have to. When violence and discrimination are present, and pressing issues are censored, that’s when it becomes really problematic.
I think that each spiritual belief, (whether it’s Christianity, Buddhism or Islam), has wisdom and love at the core of their teachings. However, as humans do, we misinterpret these core messages (by taking them too literally). We have constant misunderstandings with each other in our day-to-day conversations, what more with a scripture that preceded all of us?
Growing up in a religious family gave me an insider’s perspective on what is going on inside the church. There really are corrupted religious leaders and mass servers. Despite detaching from these kinds of people, I still believe in an uncontainable higher power, which can be experienced in the everyday. Reflecting, asking for forgiveness, and forgiving others don’t have to be done for a single week only.
Shyrelle Pizaña, volunteer mentor
As I grew up in a Catholic family, Holy Week is indeed sacred for me. I still remember my summers in the province where my grandparents would explain the importance of sacrifice and reflection. Honestly, I did not really comprehend it well until I reached my adolescent years, when I had to grapple with the meaning of all these traditions. What helped me most in college was reading the book “Faith Explained.” It deepened my faith by helping me understand the reasons behind the traditions. After learning the rubrics of the Catholic doctrine, one yearns for a more solid conviction about the faith that can only be sustained by personal prayer and reflection.
With all these, I find Holy Week a more spiritually laden week than in any part of the year considering that it is an occasion to pray about one's sins, be truly sorry for them, go to confession and be prepared to receive Holy Communion on Easter Sunday.
Alfonso Recto, visual artist
Although I left Catholicism for many reasons, its rituals were a major factor. I had a Catholic upbringing, so I was always at masses, mandatory confessions, retreats, etc. I just didn't feel engaged in any of it. The rituals felt too empty to base a spiritual life on. It may be that I never left the religion since I never felt that I was actually ever in it.
There are common beliefs that I think transcend religions. The important ones for me are the ones about how you treat other people. The rest I find either archaic or just absurd. I don't think that what people eat or when they eat it, who people sleep with or whether they believe in Jesus’ existence or divinity make them better people.
Religion is especially problematic in the Philippine context because I think too many people are in it blindly. In a poor country like ours, people need something to cling onto for meaning. I think having religion as that thing curtails a lot of critical thought and personal reflection that people here so desperately need. It's also telling that some of the most devout people here tend to be the ones who are the most bigoted and close-minded.
VL Cruz, videographer
When anyone becomes an atheist, I think it’s only logical that they drop everything related to religion: the rituals, its tenets. I’m a staunch supporter of historical and scientific studies, so it’s only natural that I stick to the facts. The reason why events like “Holy Week” weigh little to nothing to me is rooted in the questionable existence of its central figure: Jesus Christ. Aside from the Bible, I think there are barely any other historical records that prove his existence at all. Even the Bible itself has contradicting accounts on what kind of person Jesus was. So if Jesus isn’t real, Holy Week seems pretty pointless, right?
As for what I find questionable about religion, there are just too many. The Bible contains so many contradictions already regarding how to practice religion. The Church, though some members are legitimately good people, is also infested with pedophiles and other sexual predators. Yet, instead of giving justice to the abused, the Church has on many occasions absolved and protected their members.
But what’s really troubling about Christianity is the sole deity that it worships. They say it exists, yet where is the proof? Asking any member of their religion would only yield vague explanations or allegories that never really qualifies as a solid answer.
"There are common beliefs that I think transcend religions. The important ones for me are the ones about how you treat other people. The rest I find either archaic or just absurd." — Alfonso Recto
Paolo Gonzalez, engineer
Such religious traditions don't directly hold meaning to me, but they do to my family. I think I've gone past the point of criticizing their need to go to mass. Conversely, they also have evolved past shaming me for skipping mass. Our family's understanding on the subject of these big church events is that we may not necessarily have to believe everything about it, but we have to be together as a family.
Annina Nakpil, catechist
Holy week only became meaningful to me when I began going on evangelical missions in 2012. We were given the opportunity to accompany Christ in his passion, death, and resurrection through meaningful interaction with a community in Cabuyao. “To love, to be loved, and to lead others to Christ” — this is what Holy Week means to us.
Trevor Viloria, medical student
I am indifferent to Holy Week simply because I am not Catholic. Just like Christmas, it's just another day off from work or school for me. The holiday is a celebration of religious freedom to me and nothing else. If it's not hurting anyone, then it's not a problem. However, the people participating in it and the religion itself is a whole different story.
While I am (mostly) free to exercise my rights without having to abide by a religion, Filipino atheists are, more often than not, born into a religion, and then become atheists, as they get older. In addition to the already difficult disillusioning process and often traumatizing decision to leave the faith, we still have to face the scorn of family, friends, and the public.
In this country, Catholics make up a huge majority of the population so it's unavoidable that their culture ends up being the dominant one — having a near-total monopoly on things such as moral values (contraception, premarital sex, LGBT rights, abortion), media standards (censorship of themes that Catholics deem “immoral”), teaching standards in educational institutions (prayer and religious activities/subjects in public schools, most private schools and big colleges being Catholic), and even legislation (we are the only country besides Vatican City with no divorce, and we're proud of it).
I have absolutely no problem with Catholics freely exercising their religious freedom by having a holiday to go celebrate the end of the Lenten season. But as long as religion has an overwhelming chokehold on the moral fabric of this country, it will forever be more than questionable to me.
Serge Gabriel, teacher
I still think Holy Week is sacred, but I have to explain. When people talk to me about my faith, I always tell them that mine (or my “relationship with God,” which I'm more comfortable saying) is a very personal one. I think God exists through good people (my family, friends, etc. are examples of good people and why I think God exists). So, since Holy Week gives me extra time to spend with my family, I really think I get closer to God. For example, one time we biked to different churches together for Visita Iglesia.
I get that it's a privilege to say this, but I like how we're really given the time off work or school to reflect. Holy Week feels like a communal break, so it's nice that everyone's on pause for a while. If Holy Week (regardless of religion/belief) gives people the time to rest and spend time with each other, I really think it serves its purpose. Whether that's following the practices, going to the beach with friends, or just sleeping — I think that's great.