VIVA LA VIRGEN!
MANILA, OCTOBER 2, 2006 (STAR) RENDEZVOUS By Christine S. Dayrit - No one sails through life unperturbed. We experience, at some point in our lives, if not more often, a severe loss of hope, numbness, disappointment, or intractable dilemma. We search for solutions, a way out, a glimmer of good news.
For more than four centuries, since the beginning of the Spanish colonial period, ceremonials and pageantry in Philippine life have revolved around the church and the religious calendar. The Filipino’s love of lavish rituals finds expression in the religious processions that characterize the life of a majority of our fellowmen. Filipinos have a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God; she is the patroness of many towns and cities from north to south. While May is the traditional month for honoring Mary, there are many other feasts in the country held in her honor at other times of the year.
During the recent feast honoring the Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia, I had the honor to be invited by Governor Luis Ray Villafuerte and Naga City DOT regional director Nini Ravanilla along with friends from the media, like ANC’s Caroline Howard and global Pinoys Mike Mina and Loida Rapal. While admiring the blue waters of the sea on the boat trip to Naga from Caramoan, our favorite ace photographer Yvette Lee reminded us about our whale shark interaction trip to Donsol very soon, upon the invitation of one of Sorsogon’s most famous daughters, global Pinoy Loida Nicolas Lewis.
Arriving from the enchanting Caramoan Peninsula for lunch at the Magtoto residence along the banks of Naga River prior to the traditional fluvial procession, I unexpectedly met a dear friend, Alfred So, and his family, devotees of Our Lady, and whom I haven’t seen since my parents passed away in 1997.
Alfred had his first heart attack in December 1981. In September 1982, he passed Naga City en route to Legaspi on the invitation of the late Eddie Mercado and Venancio Tong, the psychic. That morning, he went to the cathedral where the Virgin of Peñafrancia was enshrined. The cathedral was very crowded and he got only as far as the front door. He stood there, jostling for a good view of the altar and experienced something strange. In an instant everything went blurry – the people around him and all other details. Nothing registered except the little girl on the altar. He left the cathedral grounds perplexed and thinking, "She is only a little girl, and why do they call her the Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia?"
Through the window of his second floor room of the Holiday Hotel where he was billeted, Alfred had a perfect view of the route that takes the Virgin from the cathedral to the Naga River where the traditional fluvial procession starts. It was the same level as the Virgin in her pagoda. Again, he saw the image of a little girl.
That evening, as he was sitting near the stage with Venancio Tong watching the spectacle of a local pageant hosted by Eddie Mercado, Venancio leaned towards him and whispered: "Alfred, the little girl is asking if you are coming back to the fiesta next year." Perplexed, Alfred asked: "What little girl?" "The little girl on the altar," Venancio replied. Remembering his vision at the cathedral that morning and during the procession, he replied: "Tell her I’m coming back."
In 1983, Alfred’s heart condition grew worse and he went to the US for an andiogram. Before the operation, he changed his mind and decided to have it in Manila at the Philippine Heart Center. After the operation, he was brought to an ICU private room to recuperate. His room faced a brick wall. Still groggy from the after-effects of anesthesia, he suddenly saw glittery sparklers twinkling like little stars on the brick wall. They seemed to be dancing until they settled into the form of a little girl. Beside her was a black dog, which was taller than she was. She waved at Alfred, smiled, and then was quickly gone.
When Venancio Tong visited him at the hospital, he asked whether a little girl had died in his room. Venancio went into a trance and when he recovered he said Alfred was being foolish. No little girl had died in his room. The girl he had seen was the little girl from Naga.
Alfred was released from the hospital in July 1983, and in September of that year, he and his wife Marilou went back to Naga for the Peñafrancia festival. Marilou bought some novena booklets and while reading them, they discovered that the Lady’s first miracle was performed on a dog.
The September feast honoring the Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia in Naga City begins with the translacion (or transfer) of the image from her shrine to the cathedral at the city center where a novena begins. A second image accompanies that of our Lady, "El Divino Rostro," an oil painting of the face of Christ held by St. Veronica. At the end of the nine-day novena, the images are brought back to their riverside shrine, the Basilica Minore.
Experiencing the festival again – the first time was with lettuce king Lyndon Tan, Senator Serge Osmeña and his lovely wife Bettina five years ago – the scene was almost surreal: hundreds of barefoot men identified by headbands in different colors, carrying and protecting the andas on which the image of the Virgin is mounted, their bodies bathed in sweat, pushed, shoved, jostled, wriggled and kicked their way into the vortex of yet another mass of anxious humanity. Their objective: to touch the tiny image, if only for a few fleeting seconds. Together with thousands of white handkerchief-waving devotees jamming the old Naga City’s edifices and narrow streets, they then let out hair-raising cries of "Viva La Virgen!" (Long live the Virgin!) For the inexperienced, the scene would appear to be a throwback to the days of anito (local deity) worship. The primordial cries, the element of machismo, and the frenzy fit well into one’s concept of an ancient religious ritual as described in some scholarly volumes. Yet, it was actually the street procession, a prelude to the fluvial procession along Naga River, in honor of Bicolandia’s patroness, Our Lady of Peñafrancia.
Reverently placed on a pagoda built on a barge, the venerated image of Peñafrancia is a little over one-and-a-half feet tall, carved in wood. Her body is of beaten silver, and her face and hands carrying the Child Jesus are delicately polished. She wears a golden cape and an aureole surrounds her dark expressive face. The barge is towed by numerous bancas propelled by polers known as paratukod and paddlers known as voyadores, a corruption of the Spanish vogadores or seafarers (boat people). Lining deep along the river route are pilgrims from all over Bicolandia and beyond, waving to the holy images with white handkerchiefs, some with lighted candles and murmuring prayers.
The origin of the image is altogether complicated. It is said that during the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, the Covarrubias family from the town of San Martin de Castaner, Spain, where Peña de Francia belonged, settled at Porta Vaga, Cavite in 1712. One day, their son, Miguel Robles de Covarrubias, a seminarian studying in the Universidad de Santo Tomas, Manila, got very ill. He and his family prayed to Our Lady of Peñafrancia whose picture he was clutching to his breast for his recovery and to spare his life. He also made a vow that if cured, he would construct a chapel by the banks of the Pasig River in Manila, out of gratitude to her. Miraculously cured, he eventually was ordained a priest, not in Manila, but in the Ciudad de Nueva Caceres (now Naga City). To fulfill his vow, Fray Miguel, the first diocesan priest to be ordained in Naga, did two things: one, he mobilized the cimmarrones (natives) along the slopes of Mt. Isarog to construct a chapel made of local materials, nipa and bamboo, this time by the banks of the Bicol River in Naga (not by the Pasig River, as earlier envisioned); two, he ordered a local artisan to carve an image patterned after the picture of Our Lady he always had with him. Miracles happened then and there. It is said that a dog was killed, its blood poured out to seep into the carved-wood image. Records recall how Fray Miguel remarked that if the Virgin willed it, the dog would revive. It did. Seen by many, it swam from where it was thrown lifeless to the riverbank, then ran to its master’s house. News spread quickly and soon, crowds began to come to her for help. The Ina of the cimmarrones became the patroness and heavenly benefactor of the Bicol region.
A plea for a son’s passing the board examination answered, a civil case resolved, a hope for trip realized, an illness cured, the return of a prodigal child – they are not miracles by strict norms. They would not stand Vatican scrutiny. Rather, they are slivers of hope that literally open the gates of heaven. This is how the Lady of Peñafrancia, locally known as Ina (Mother), enshrined in Naga City of the Bicol region in the Philippines, has worked her way into the hearts of countless devotees. It is a simple, quiet touch, moving in most, which never fails to draw an emotional response.
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For inquiries about Camarines Sur, call DOT provincial officer Nini Ravanilla at 0917-5583460, or visit its website at www.camarinersur.gov.ph and www.naga.gov.ph.
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Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi
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