(STAR) By Erica Cortez - After nearly 300 years, the devotion to Our Lady of Peñafrancia, or Ina, remains alive. The annual Peñafrancia festival, held in mid-September in Naga City, is the most widespread Marian devotion and one of the most well-known and enduring of Philippine religious festivals.

The devotion to Ina, patroness of the Bicol region, is inspired by miracles attributed to her. It is rooted in the story of an 18th century seminarian named Miguel Robles de Covarrubias from Peñafrancia, Spain. When he became very ill, he prayed to Our Lady of Peñafrancia and vowed to build a chapel in her honor if he would recover.

Miraculously healed, he fulfilled his promise and built a nipa-and-bamboo chapel, which today is the Basilica Minore of Our Lady of Peñafrancia.

Padre Miguel’s story inspired many believers, who propagated the devotion to Ina.

The festival’s focal point is the traslacion, or “journey” of the image of the Virgin of Peñafrancia — a replica of the Madonna in Peñafrancia, Spain — from its shrine at the Basilica to the Naga Metropolitan Cathedral at the start of the novena. At the end of the nine-day prayers and Masses, the image is returned to the shrine via a fluvial parade down the Naga River.

A flatboat carrying the image is escorted by devotees, called voyadores, riding in smaller boats. The devotees light candles as the sun sets. The final leg of the image’s return is a procession to the cathedral, marked by cheers of Viva la Virgen (Long Live the Virgin).

Generations of Bicolanos have observed this tradition. Today’s youngsters are no exception.

Take friends Grace Abilay (15), Maricel Olili (18), Jonathan Bulawan (23), Roy Cutillas (16), and Erick Aguimatang (15). They are active in the youth ministry of their parish, coordinating or participating in activities such as youth encounters and conferences. They are also choir members.

“We have been Peñafrancia devotees for years,” says Jonathan in the local dialect. “Every year we station ourselves on Tabuk Bridge overlooking the landing arch.” This is where Ina “debarks” the flatboat and is then carried by voyadores back to the basilica.

All five share the same reason for participating in the festival. “It is a time for giving thanks to the Lord for all the blessings He has given us, and also for seeking guidance on how to live holy lives,” Jonathan says. “We want to be a good example to young people.”

The festival is also “the time when devotees pray for miracles,“ says Grace. Testimonials of devotees who have experienced miracles of Ina have drawn more and more people to become followers as well, she adds.

“I was very young when my parents introduced me to the devotion,” Jonathan says. “Laging sinasabi ng mga nakakatanda sa amin, ‘hindi tayo pababayaan ni Ina’ (Elders would constantly remind us that Ina will never forsake us).”

Some might look at the five teenagers as extraordinarily good, but they are quick to say that they are just like other youths, with the same interests, like OPM bands and movies.

They joined friends at the LCC Mall for “FiestaSAYA – Handog ng Smart,” a musical concert presented by the leading wireless services provider. The show, which capped the daylong fair, featured their favorite rock bands and was hosted by Smart endorser Epy Quizon and DJ Ginger of Naga’s dwOK radio station. (Other Smart activities included booths offering free haircut, henna tattoo, and snacks for subscribers, as well as onstage games and a street-dance competition.)

“Smart’s participation in the Peñafrancia festival is our way of thanking our Bicolano subscribers,” says Ting Jimenez, Smart sales and distribution head.

In three years, the Peñafrancia devotion shall mark its tricentenary. This early, preparations have begun for a grand celebration of thanksgiving, with the theme “Growth in Holiness under the Mantle of Ina.”

Through youths like Grace, Maricel, Jonathan, Roy and Erick, the devotion will be carried on through the next century.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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