A Filipino Lenten tradition explainer
Visita Iglesia is a Roman Catholic practice of visiting churches during Lent. Over the years, the practice in general came to entail no particular number of churches to visit. But in the Philippines, the number has always been seven – an allusion to the seven basilicas in Rome from which the tradition originated. The practice usually starts by attending a mass in the first church, followed by praying at the Blessed Sacrament or at the Stations of the Cross in the remaining six.
In the past, the visitation was done during Maundy Thursday, but Filipinos have come to perform it as early as Ash Wednesday, and as late as Good Friday. The reason behind this deviation is practicality. Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are declared as holidays in the Philippines; thus, popular churches tend to get crowded during these days, which could potentially turn the solemn practice into something hurried and rambunctious. Imagine elbowing your way through a mass of people just to say a prayer (otherwise known as the daily MRT commute). While some would be fine with this (some would even prefer it because of the communal vibe), others prefer to have a little peace and quiet, hence the early start.
This year’s Lent also saw the height of another practical dimension to the practice. Local parishes have taken into organizing Visita Iglesias for their congregation. Travel agencies, too, have started offering “holy tours.”
Reminiscent of a school field trip, these tours usually take participating parishioners to another province aboard a bus or a coaster, complete with an itinerary of not only seven churches, but tourist spots as well. These tours are popular among the elderly and cash-strapped devotees. Because, truth be told, going from church to church could take its toll on your pocket, and tours like these allow more Filipinos to partake in a religious tradition.
In the province of Rizal, one church has become an all-time favorite Visita Iglesia destination. The Antipolo Cathedral houses a Marian image of the Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage – the patron of travelers. Its proximity to the Metro adds to its allure, and it’s often the seventh and final church in a visitation. The visit to the cathedral during Holy Week has a unique feature. Instead of just driving their way to the church, people opt to go there in an “Alay Lakad” – a foot procession during Good Friday that draws thousands of devotees from as far as Quiapo.
Practices like these are nothing new to the Philippines. The country has always been predominantly Catholic. According to the October 2015 report of the Philippine Statistics Authority, 80.58 percent of the total Filipino population were Roman Catholics – that’s around 80 million people, majority of which would be observing Lent, showing penance and commemorating the death and rebirth of Christ through Visita Iglesia, Alay Lakad, fasting, or through the more extreme means of self-flagellation.
By CELINE REYES