Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Thirty-six years ago, 71-year-old Virginia Cantos was diagnosed with tongue cancer. She was scheduled to have an operation at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) hospital, only to find out the surgeon wasn’t available. “Buti naman pagdating ko sa UST, hindi pumasok ‘yung mag-oopera,” says Cantos. Instead of going back to the hospital, she vowed to complete nine days of going to mass at Quiapo Church instead.
“Walang patid, siyam na Biyernes, tuloy-tuloy ‘yan, umaalis ako ng madaling araw sa amin,” she says. While completing these Friday masses, her husband Fermin, on the other hand, would join the procession, from their house in Sampaloc to Bulacan, to pray to the Lourdes Grotto. Since starting these practices, cancer cells have seemed to evade her body.
Even with less threatening health problems, Virginia would go straight to Quiapo instead of a doctor’s clinic. “Kahit may nararamdaman ako, mga rayuma, tinitiis ko. Sabi ko maawa sa akin ang Panginoon, titiisin ko kaya ngayon malakas naman ako, wala akong nararamdaman — sa awa naman,” she adds.
Virginia is only one of the over a million devotees who took part at this year’s Traslacion, an annual day-long procession — which starts from the Intramuros area (the original home of the life-sized image) to Quiapo (its current location) — celebrated by those who are faithful to the Black Nazarene.
Like Virginia, it was also a health problem that nudged Catherine Hernandez, a devotee since 2008, to start joining Traslacion. “Sakin kasi, may seizure ako eh. Mild na epilepsy,” says Catherine, as she fixes the flowers at the foot of her family’s Nazareno replica. “Buti nga di na siya inaatake mula nung sumasama siya [sa prosesyon],” quips her husband, Fernando, who has been attending Traslacion since 1993.
For Fernando, joining the procession has become a tradition, having seen generations of his family — from grandparents to his parents, uncles, and aunts — create a Nazareno replica and walk barefoot for hours on end since he was young. His devotion did start as something that he was only used to doing with his family, but he says that he has also witnessed one of the biggest miracles he’s experienced because of his faith: the birth of his son.
“Kasi hindi kami magkaanak noon, hiniling ko sa Kanya at binigyan ako,” shares Fernando. “Hindi na siya [Catherine] pwedeng mag-anak dapat eh, pero mga in one year [since hiningi ko], nabuntis siya. Kaya heto dere-deretso na.”
These ‘miracle’ stories are not rare when talking to people who have devoted time, money, and energy to believe in a higher power. Generally, people refer to a ‘miracle’ when pertaining to phenomena that goes beyond what logic tells us. Another devotee, Joseph Dultra, the president of the Bisaya chapter of the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity, has a miracle story similar to that of the Hernandezes.
In 2007, after years of not going to church, he went to Quiapo to pray for his wife to bear a child. “Dito ko hiniling ‘yung anak ko na magkaroon kami ng anak ng asawa ko kasi matagal kami hindi magkaroon ng baby. After three years, binigay Niya sakin,” he says. He then shows a T-shirt he always brings to the procession, one he has not washed for 11 years. He believes that this particular shirt, a black round-neck shirt with screen printed images of the Black Nazarene, has brought nothing but good fortune to him and his family.
Beyond his individual practices, as a recent president of APO, Joseph has also vowed to gather his fraternity brothers to help Nazareno devotees, in any way they can, every Traslacion. In Liwasang Bonifacio, one of the first routes the “andas” (or the carriage that holds the Nazareno) passes, the fraternity set up a tent where they give out free bottled water, an initiative that they only started this year and will continue for the following years of Joseph’s presidency.
“Nung gumawa ako ng yearly development for service for one year, ito ang ginawa ko na highlight na ang Nazareno bibigyan namin ng serbisyo sa month of January,” he explains. “Taon taon na po ito — baka madagdagan na: libreng lugaw, tubig, kung baga nag-oobserve pa kami kung ano ‘yung maganda.”
Out of all the religious images and deities that one can devote themselves to, why the Black Nazarene? Joseph says it’s most to do with how the Nazareno mirrors the suffering of the people (the carrying of the cross). “Sa Bisaya, may tinatawag kaming ‘pasakit.’ Nasa Kanya [‘yung simbolo] eh — ‘yung pasan mo ‘yung hirap.”
Msgr. Sabino Vengco, a lecturer at the Loyola School of Theology, says in an interview with CNN Philippines’ “The Source” that the Filipinos' natural liking for the Nazareno is indeed because the image embodies suffering and pain.
“This particular image, emphasizes, puts the stress on that moment of suffering. That moment of suffering for the Filipino is very eloquent: underneath the cross, yet ... standing up. Not giving up,” he explains.
Despite all the suffering that the Filipinos have endured and continue to endure, Joseph remains firm in saying that suffering doesn’t become a burden when one is faithful to the Black Nazarene.
“Wala kaming nagiging malaking problema — sa pamumuhay namin, hindi kami naghirap,” he says. “Mayroon talaga pagbabago sa buhay … Ngayon, kumbaga, may kagaanan na ng buhay — dati sumisilip [ka] lang ng T.V. ng kapitbahay mo, ngayon may T.V. ka na.”
All the stories of these devotees may come from different contexts and points of view, but there certainly is a common thread that goes beyond the usual themes of suffering and resilience — it’s gratefulness. All of them started their devotion to the Black Nazarene because of a desire: to bear a child or to cure an illness. But now, when asked about what they’re all praying for this year, what they hope for the Nazareno to answer this time around: it was revealing that they all answered none in particular; that they’re there, barefoot in the sweltering heat, to simply thank the Nazareno for the child that was the miracle or the cancer that was gone.
Update: This article has been updated to include the latest head count of devotees who attended this year's Traslacion.