Christian scripture records Jesus’ commandment to his followers to “take up their cross daily and follow me.” Christian answers to how literally this commandment should be taken vary across historical periods, geographic locations, and denominational tradition. In The Way of the Cross: Suffering Selfhoods in the Roman Catholic Philippines, Julius Bautista explores how one group of Roman Catholics in the Philippine province of Pampanga “take up the cross.” During Holy Week, believers literally reenact Jesus’ passion by allowing themselves to be flogged and nailed to the cross. The book explores the many and sometimes unexpected ways they speak about their own “imitation of Christ” and how they believe their lives and the lives of others are transformed by their participation in the rituals.
This book contributes to several steams of current debates in religious studies. First, it demonstrates the ways that populations forced to accept Christianity by colonial power and violence have often transformed this truth into pieties that reveal ways the Christian tradition makes sense of suffering local geographic and cultural contexts. Bautista specifically argues that participants in the ritual “are not completely and unquestionably beholden to the rich legacy bestowed by colonial and religious institutions in pursuit of their relationship with God (7).
The Holy Week rituals in Pamanga are officially condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. The use of painful rituals by Catholic religious orders became almost nonexistent after the Second Vatican Council, which posited that Christ’s passion and sacrifice cannot be represented outside the eucharist. However, the book notes that in the villages where the reenactments occur, parish priests are much more sympathetic to the intensions of participants. Yet, for the Roman Catholic hierarchy the problem is that lay Catholics use the passion rituals to mediate God’s action and seek God’s favor outside the clerical mediation of the Christian sacraments and find it a way to connect with God’s grace and mercy on behalf of those they love and care about and for whom they seek intercession.
Bautista explores the transformation of ascetical practices introduced by colonial-era Spanish Jesuits by contemporary Philippine Catholics. The Jesuits propagated the notion that such practices helped believers foster a right relationship with God and that their suffering was penance for their sin. However, the author notes that interviews with participants in the Passion Week rituals do not narrate the suffering they undergo in these terms. Rather, they express the belief that their practices curries God’s favor, or merits God’s attention to some situation in their lives in need of alteration, a belief at odds with Roman Catholic understandings of God’s action.
Bautista provides a rich description of the Holy Week’s practices. Many believers only participate in certain parts of the rituals, only a few are nailed to the cross. The rituals begin with the singing of pabasa (ritual) texts that narrate the story of Jesus’ passion. This singing creates a “sonic environment” which can be heard on the streets setting the stage for other rituals that follow later in the week. The Holy Week rituals begin with the practice of self-flagellation. This is done in public, and the community walks with those who undertake the flagellation. But the book also explores the ways that those who undertake the rituals make sense of them. He finds that many describe what the book calls “triangulated empathy” between God, the person undergoing the ritual, and another third person on whose behalf the flagellant undertakes the ritual—which is to say, they believe that they can appeal to Christ for the benefit of a third person through their participation in the ritual. But the question unanswered is what such a belief says about how they relate this notion and belief about God to traditional Christian teachings about God’s love, forgiveness, and attention to all.
The book moves on from the flagellation to the ritual of crucifixion, practiced by only a few believers known as Kristos, who follow a certain script that does not change from year to year. However, one weakness of the book is that it does not analyze the script in relation to the scriptural witness to explore what the script itself might say about the theology of the rituals. While he notes that many scholarly depictions of the rituals use theories about the imitation of Christ or the ability of pain to obliterate the self, these are at odds with the reasons participants give for their motivations.
I wished the book explored further how women undergoing the passion rituals pose lived challenges to traditional Roman Catholic theology, which only allows men to be ordained priests in part because they believe only men can represent Christ’s body when representing the eucharistic sacrifice and that only men can be priests because only they can represent the body of Jesus on the altar.
The Way of the Cross combines rich ethnographic description with sophisticated theological analysis as it explores the ways certain Philippine believers connect their individual and communal suffering with Christ’s passion. That exploration reveals how specific communities have both adopted and transformed the Christianity given to them by colonial power, during colonial time. It does this without simplifying the complexity of the factors that animate the theologies of the Holy Week rituals. Bautista explores how the government’s valorization overseas work by Philippine citizens and who provide the country with economically crucial remittances, contribute to a cultural environment that accepts the benefits of suffering for the well-being of others. He explores the practitioner’s dependence and discord from official Roman Catholic teachings, showing how the laity understand, transform, and depart from magisterial teaching without falling into the dichotomy of “official” and “popular religion.” The ethnographic accounts and careful interviews with participants in crucifixion rituals create a vivid portrait of the passion reenactments. The book also acknowledges the complexity of the relationship between “popular” practice and official Roman Catholic pronouncements on the issue, as well as the way that the Roman Catholic hierarchy interacts with popular practices on both parish and national levels.
Aaron Klink is chaplain of Pruitt Health Hospice of Rocky Mount, North Carolina.
Date Of Review:
August 31, 2021
Julius Bautista is associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University.
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