Poong Nazareno to a diocesan priest
IT is the evening after our parish celebration of the Traslacion of the image of Quiapo’s Black Nazarene. Diocesan priests like me often feel prevailed upon by our local devotees to have our own version of the Traslacion. Today we had quite a crowd of parishioners in our own procession, though nowhere near the mammoth numbers in Manila. I have always wondered what motivates the faithful in a far-flung place like Our Lady Mount Carmel Parish, where I’m at, to join the annual celebration that concerns strictly the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, Manila. Is it the “pull” of faith or merely of the sight of millions of devotees shown live on tv, braving every difficulty just to express their faith in Someone they can identify with, hoping for answers to their prayers? Is this the spiritual version of “Imperial Manila” ruling even the faith life of distant believers? Or is the Poon’s Traslacion an emerging cause that furthers the unity of Filipino Catholics?
I remember an American religious priest who, years ago, first witnessed the annual procession. He was awed by the size of the crowds and the fervor of their faith. But he thought the tradition needed some purification from what he considered non-Christian elements, including superstitions and possibly near-idolatrous tendencies. This is the reason behind the call for more systematic catecheses not only in Quiapo but also hopefully where the tradition is practised. Still, there was some part of me that wanted to quote to a fellow priest from a foreign country Jesus’ own words: “Do not judge and you will not be judged” (Lk 6:36).
On hearing the song “Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno” I remember asking: “Isn’t Jesus the Son and not the Father? How can people call him ‘Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno’ and themselves ‘Hijos de Jesus Nazareno’?” But then I found myself answering my own questions. To myself I quoted Jesus himself saying: “He who sees me sees the Father” (Jn 14:6; 12:45) and “The Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30). Even non-Catholics would never gainsay that.
First off, Poong Nazareno is Jesus who suffered for us. His very appearance points us to a suffering Christ. The cross he is carrying is no stranger to Filipinos and particularly their diocesan priests. The priestly munera (Word, sacraments and pastoral care) are veritably a cross the priest carries; fulfilling them entails no little suffering. Poong Nazareno’s cross points to the value of the priest’s own sufferings as much as of those he ministers to. Jesus suffered because of his love for us. A diocesan priest must truly embrace this suffering love to find meaning and strength in the sacrifice he must make daily to serve the Lord’s flock. When he does, his suffering, like the Master’s, also reveals God’s love for us. “God so loved the world,” St John tells us, “that he gave us his only Son so that those who believe in him may not perish but may have everlasting life” (Jn 3.16).
Second, Poong Nazareno is Jesus who died for us. Death is something we are afraid of and would want to shelve even in our most honest and intimate conversations. We think it is impolite to bring up the subject. Even priests are no exception. But death is part of the cycle of life. The seed has to die to being a seed so it can be a plant. The egg has to die to being an egg so it can become a bird or a chicken etc. A caterpillar has to die to being a caterpillar so it can become a butterfly. Jesus had to die so as to overcome death itself. We ourselves proclaim the mystery of faith, saying to the Lord, “Dying you destroyed our death…” A diocesan priest has to die to being parochial and myopic in his vision of Church and mission so as to truly invite the poor not only to the Table of the Lord but also to the task of evangelization.
Third, Poong Nazareno is Jesus who has provided us with the evidence of his conquest of death: his resurrection. When someone asks a diocesan priest what evidence he can show that he finished theological formation, he can simply show his school of theology diploma. The resurrection is the Lord’s diploma, a concrete affirmation that he has power over death and life Itself. We knock in vain for life and happiness if we don’t knock on his door. For a diocesan priest, Poong Nazareno is a constant reminder of his need to rise from his falls, be it to sin or to failures in the ministry.
It is hardly surprising if diocesan priests themselves bring their petitions and needs to Poong Nazareno just like the rest of the faithful. I find it more moving, though, to find many devotees who join the Traslacion procession simply to thank Poong Nazareno for answered prayers, for his enduring love, even going as far as feeding hungry fellow devotees. But the greatest act of thanksgiving priests and lay faithful can make is to allow Poong Nazareno’s Paschal Mystery to become actualized in their life: to continue to learn how to die to selfishness, to pride, to sin of whatever kind and to rise to new lives genuinely walking the path of life with the Master.