The truth behind the Black Nazarene's color

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 9) — The centuries-old devotion to the Black Nazarene, an image of a dark-skinned Jesus Christ carrying a cross, had been passed down from generation to generation, along with tales of its origins and supposed miracles, but some of these deserve to be corrected.

For starters, Msgr. Sabino Vengco, from the Loyola School of Theology of the Ateneo de Manila University, told CNN Philippines' The Source that the image of the Black Nazarene never turned dark because it was burned on its way to Manila.

"Actually, the Black Nazarene has been black from the very beginning," said Vengco, who flew to Mexico to conduct research on old religious icons in the Philippines.

Vengco explained that the image, whose annual procession in January draws millions of people to the city of Manila, was sculpted from mesquite wood, akin to the local kamagong wood.

"If people are not given the right stories and explanations, nature abhors vacuum. They will come up with their own speculative speculations," he said. "And the fire aboard that transporting ship, you know, that's always a handy explanation — but there's no truth to that."

The theologian also said the feast of the Black Nazarene, traditionally celebrated on January 9th, should be changed as that date only refers to the transfer of the image from the possession of the Recolletos congregation in Intramuros to its current location in the parish of St. John the Baptist in Quiapo.

"The liturgical celebration of the Black Nazarene ... in Intramuros and even today for the Church should be in connection with the Lenten season, particularly the Holy Week, on a Friday," Vengco said.

He said the Black Nazarene had to be moved from the parish of San Nicolas de Tolentino because the church was destroyed by two quakes. He added that the devotion to the image was put "in limbo" for 80 years, so the Archbishop of Manila then had to order the Recolletos fathers to turn over the image to the Archdiocese of Manila.

The Recolletos had a second image of the Black Nazarene in their possession, Vengco said, but this, along with the church it was in, was destroyed during the second World War.

Patient guidance needed

While Vengco would prefer the celebration of the feast of the Black Nazarene moved for liturgical correctness, he admitted that this cannot be easily done.

"We patiently wait for that because you are dealing with masses, with people. You do not just command them; that would be idiotic, no one would pay attention to you. You educate them, you guide them — and guidance, as any parent will tell you, it requires a lot of patience," he said.

He added that while the Church encourages different expressions of faith from its adherents, these should always be in harmony and never contrary to its "liturgy [and] official prayer life."

Devotees of the Black Nazarene have sometimes encountered people of other faiths on the route of the Traslacion bearing signs warning them against idolatry and fanaticism.

In his homily during a Mass before the Black Nazarene's procession began, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle defended devotees from being tagged as "fanatics," saying that what distinguishes fanatics from devotees is that the latter shows love, faithful service and oneness with God.

Vengco said the priests of Quiapo Church, who he said were once his students, are trying their best to connect the feast of the Black Nazarene with the liturgy of the Church.

"May [There is a] morning prayer na ngayon, mayroong Misa, mayroong stations for the people [now, there is a Mass, there are stations,] telling them, 'You do not have to kill yourself trying to touch. Just, doon na lang kayo maghintay [wait somewhere else.]' putting sanity into it," he said.

He added that people who do not understand the devotion to the Black Nazarene should just be tolerant of the devotees.

"You cannot judge other people as to what is in their hearts and in their minds. It is a matter between them and God. They're not doing you anything, so why are you so bothered and why are you so concerned about correcting them? Because you cannot correct them," Vengco said.

Pope Innocent X granted recognition to the Cofradia de Jesus Nazareno, the first confraternity dedicated to Jesus in the Philippines in a Papal Bull in 1651. Some 200 years later, Pope Pius VII gave the image his apostolic blessing, granting anyone who prays to it plenary indulgence, or the removal of all temporal punishment for sins.