The Peñafrancia celebration: A collective ritual of faith

“No, the pen cannot describe the poetry which contains the enthusiasm of a Catholic people who manifests publicly its faith, its confidence, its tenderness and gratitude, towards the enchanting Mother of beautiful love . . .”

THIS was how the public manifestation of faith by the inhabitants of Ciudad de Nueva Caceres and of the surrounding towns and provinces belonging to the bishopric to Nuestra Señora de Peña de Francia during the festivities of 1876 was described in the paper “El Oriente”, a weekly review of the Sciences, Literature, Art Industry, Commerce, News, etc. published in Spain.

Indeed, no amount of vocabulary can ever capture the ‘awe’ that a devotee, a pilgrim, and a stranger experience during the days of the festivities.  This is the mark of a heartfelt experience of the annual celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Peñafrancia.

As the days of the festivities draw near, Bikolanos and devotees get a feeling similar yet distinct from that which one feels when Christmastime approaches. It is generally a feeling of religiosity, of excitement, of joy, of a heightened sense of identity as a Pueblo amante de Maria — a people in love with Mary.  No wonder,Peñafrancia has become synonymous with the word Bicolano.

The number of devotees and pilgrims has grown with the passage of time. They do not just come from the provinces and towns of the region but also from different parts of the country and of the globe. Remarkably, they keep coming back. Perhaps, the charm of Peñafrancia lies in the silent encounter with INA which results into a indescribable bond between Mother and devotee.

While Filipino fiestas are generally characterized by meal sharing, parades, dances, entertainments, etc, two particular elements of the Peñafrancia Fiesta come to mind:  the Traslacion and the Fluvial Procession. While the novenary masses at the Metropolitan Cathedral should not be overlooked, these two form significant parts of the annual ritual of devotion.

Many devotees and pilgrims join the Traslacion and the Fluvial Procession. There are also those who wait for INA to pass by. They stand as silent spectators along the streets, the river banks, or in front of the television as INA traverses the streets of Naga and the River.

Theirs, I believe is not empty silence, but rather one that contains a little prayer in one’s heart, a whisper addressed to a mother. It is a silence characterized by anxiety at the sight of the image of INA being tossed about by the voyadores; and joy at the knowledge that INA has reached her destination.

The highlights of the Peñafrancia festivities are a drama which progresses without requiring much words. There are a number of silent rituals involved. People lit candles while quietly uttering a prayer. There are those who silently join the throng of people ushering INA from the Basilica to the Cathedral. A chosen few accompany her in the pagoda on the way home. There are also those who rush towards the image to touch her, or to grab a piece of ornament on the andas or the pagoda. Others take a dip into the river as she passes by. These are but only a few of the varied manifestations of the people’s devotion to her, forming part of the whole ensemble of the celebration. There aren’t much words involved. Wordiness only robs a ritual of its meaning. Thus, the cry of the people:  Viva la Virgen! Viva el Divino Rostro!

As aforementioned, while the Traslacion and the Fluvial Processions are the highlights of the festivities, the nine-day novena at the Cathedral and the Solemn Feast at the Basilica should not be missed. During these days thousands of people silently line up to get near the image. They patiently wait for their turn to be able to touch and kiss the image of INA. The wait may be long but the close encounter may only last for seconds. And as always, such a brief moment with the Lady is worthy of one’s long wait.

The reasons that move the hearts of devotees and pilgrims are certainly varied. There are those who fulfill apanata. Others express their gratitude, but for many – it is to seek a blessing. Those who come for curiosity’s sake are not lacking. Such curiosity, at times, is transformed into a meaningful story. Thus, each acquires his own story. It is not surprising then that the Peñafrancia Fiesta is likewise a phenomenon of interwoven stories of faith, love and devotion.  One may recall the story of the finding of the image at the slopes of Peña de Francia, the story of Don Miguel Robles de Covarrubias, the story of the miracle of the dog, and the many stories of healing. Yet not all stories are happy ones. There is the story of the collapse of the Colgante bridge in 1972 as well as the story of the disappearance of the Image in 1981. These and many other stories recount how the Bicolanos and devotees have kept and shared their sense of religiosity and faith.

The Peñafrancia celebration is a collective ritual of faith. Indeed, as El Oriente describes, it is a public expression of confidence, tenderness and gratitude of a people towards the enchanting Mother of beautiful love. It is likewise a powerful media for the instruction of the succeeding generations.

The Peñafrancia celebration is not a static ritual. One can discover the dynamism of faith behind all the trimmings of the celebration. And in the face of changing circumstances as well as the search for a more authentic expression of faith and devotion, rituals undergo change. The evolution of the andas is but one proof to this.

A question, however, may be raised: Where is Jesus? Seemingly, the esteem for Jesus is not well articulated as the entire drama takes place. The honor given to the Divino Rostro seems to take a secondary place. Yet, like the many silent expressions of devotion, deep in the heart of the devotee is the conviction that Mary’s importance rests in her closeness to Jesus — in her being the INA of JESUS. She is not only a woman of God, she is Mater Dei.  It is on this account that a devotee calls her mother. For apart from Jesus, Mary is not worthy of honor. Mary becomes INA to the devotees because of Jesus. The scene at Calvary comes to mind when Jesus turned to the disciple John and his mother, Mary: “Woman, behold thy son.  Son, behold thy mother.”  Jesus himself entrusted her mother to us. So that in honoring Mary, the devotee honors Jesus.  Thus, the prayer that is constantly repeated during the days of the novenario is but appropriate:  “O Maria nin Peñafrancia, kami pamibian sa Kagurangnan.” A collective prayer sung by people paying homage to their INA.(Fr. Rex Andrew C. Alarcon)