Reading, Writing, Walking
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
The Road to Baclaran Church: Penance & Promise

The road to Baclaran Church is a road filled with penance and promise. Penance, for the devotees who walk the dusty, potholed, traffic-strewn road is long, and the trek ends at the church, where promises are said and petitions said to be granted.

I have been going with my mother to Baclaran Church every First Wednesday of the month for more than 8 years now. It is part of a promise I made to Our Lady of Perpetual Help for a petition granted. The Church, run by Redemptorist fathers houses the Shrine of the Byzantine-like icon of the Virgin Mary who is the object of profound devotion for Filipinos from all walks of life.

This particular first Wednesday in March is Ash Wednesday and nothing could have prepared us for the massive traffic jam, biting heat and humongous crowd that gathered on that mid-morning. It was impossible to park the car near the church as cars stood still from as far as EDSA and Roxas Boulevard. Thus my mother and I decided to walk the half-kilometer trek perhaps to feel the sacrifice more on this day that signalled the official start of Lent.

We found ourselves getting off at the corner where the newly refurbished Greek-inspired façade of the Casino Filipino at the Heritage Hotel was unveiled recently as the streamer announced, another proud paean to the local authorities and the country’s leading gambling agency, the irony of which never fails to amuse me, of how even in this modern age, gambling and a church are always found close by. However, the casino looked empty as the entrance was bare save for a lone security guard. As we passed its parking lot there were no cars to be found. No gamblers today, I thought. Not on Ash Wednesday, when fasting and abstinence are the norm to us Catholics. But then again it is only 10:00 a.m.

Jeepneys and buses faced off a few meters ahead, tricycles backed up, barkers and drivers shouting in an attempt to unsnarl the mess. This was no ordinary Wednesday, I thought and our penance was just about to begin.

We were swallowed by the crowd on foot and slowly trudged along the dirty side street. It was free of moving traffic now as the jam had produced a wide stretch of car-less pedestrian space before it. We inched and snaked our way through the crowd, mindful of the vendors that had set up by the road as we headed towards Redemptorist Road.

My mother stopped to buy colorful handwoven fans to cover and cool us from the heat. A blind musician crooned love songs on a small karaoke and we stopped to drop a few coins in his tin cup. Up ahead various vendors traded their wares while grown men act as lookouts for cops who raid these “illegal” vendors. It is difficult not to think of the irony of life on this road, how devotees or so-called penitents walk through this way, thinking of how they can reach the church, where they lift their prayers and petitions to be answered, walking with this single thought in mind while the citizens of the streets eke out their day’s wages through any method possible. Watch-your-car-boys, jeepney barkers, children offering to carry packages and bags, name it they are all over.

As we see the vendors smiling and chatting, their small children laughing and playing, my mother comes up with her oft-repeated line, “Look at how they are, so poor yet so happy. Makes you realize how lucky you are.” I remind myself to be happy at being lucky but I still can’t erase the thoughts from my mind.

We turn left to a narrower road to avoid the intense heat of the sun. Bad decision. Unusually the crowd is even more dense in this side street. Our “suki” or usual vendor of dried fish smiles at us. Manang, as we call her, is a heavy set, old woman, with dark complexion, small twinkling eyes squatted infront of “bilaos” (round native flat woven baskets) of dried “tuyo” and “tinapa” (salted and smoked herring) and “daing na bangus” (smoked milkfish). The special of the day is her “tinapang tilapia” (smoked St. Peter’s fish) and we buy half a kilo of this. She gives us the usual “dagdag” (or extra) with her trademark wink to her staff, careful that the other buyers do not hear of our largesse. Manang knows that Lent is a time for brisk business, with the start of abstinence and not eating meat on Fridays happening on this day, Ash Wednesday.

We walk further down this small road and notice that the layout is different from last month’s. The plant and flower vendors are now on both sides of the street so the walkways are narrower. It does not help that the ambulant vendors selling everything from fancy jewelry to fruits to manicure implements to bags, peanuts, shirts, pots and pans set themselves in the center, acting as divider for those going to and from the road to the church. I feel a bump from behind and in turn nudge my mother, who is walking in front of me. There is a trigger effect as she hits the elderly woman before her. Stares ensue and my mother shouts to the crowd to watch it. This doesn’t surprise me as my mother, who at 67 is all of 24 years, is used to crowds. I fondly call her the original “Batang Quiapo” (kid from Quiapo) as she was used to walking fast through crowds with my late maternal grandmother, the original Marian devotee who would take her along to Quiapo church as a toddler with my aunt.

Tense grumbling is heard as people walk counterflow with bags of clothing, food and flowers hanging from their raised hands. Somebody remarks that this is the worst of times, that the crowd rushing forth to the Church coincides with those coming out from the Mass. In my 8 years I have never seen a crowd this thick here at Baclaran. Not even on the side streets. From atop a platform an elderly man asks that everyone be careful, and not to push. lest this become another “Wowowee” stampede situation. Nervous laughter ensues and I think of how the Filipino can think of comedy, that of the dark kind, in a situation like this. Just as the situation becomes so tight and packed, my mother pauses in front of a vendor selling houseclothes or dusters. She wants to buy a few for my aunt in Toronto, who is looking for a particular batik design. I shake my head and ask her why she has to buy at this particular time, but more so why my svelte, elderly aunt would want a sleeveless, flimsy piece of dress to wear in snowy, frigid Toronto? Its because they don’t sell them there, my mom explains. I just tell her to pay for it quick as I get the looks from those behind me who want to get past us.

As sweat trickles down in clumps on my back I pray to Our Lady to help us get out of this swell. My mother again converses with another lady to stop pushing and I feel the heat and perspiration of bodies packed side by side, front and back against my skin. I hope I don’t pass out here but I realize that if I do I will not even fall and remain standing. Walking slowly inch by inch, seconds seem like hours as the road is even thicker at the corner where it turns right to Redemptorist Road.

Just as all hell seemed to be trapped in that one road, the elderly man on the platform shouts to us that we can go up the stairs on the right and make a short cut through the Berma Shopping Mall. The ladies in front follow suit and through the shoving we float our way up to the stairs. The cool air from the mall blows the sweat from us but provides only temporary relief as we follow the crowd out to the entrance which leads to Redemptorist Road. Back to the heat, cars lined up bumper-to-bumper with nary a space left in sight to maneuver. The crowd spills onto the spaces between cars like ants down a hill. We head on to walk by the vendors’ stalls that do a thriving trade selling clothes, shoes, bags, belts, underwear, curtains, what-have-yous. The heat is unbearable and I wish we had brought umbrellas. Closer to the gates of the church compound are the stalls selling religious icons, statues, novenas, rosaries and candles alongside older women selling herbs, pills, potions and roots for abortion purposes from makeshift stands. Another irony in Baclaran.

The normal ten-minute walk has stretched to a twenty-minute sojourn. Walking past the gates my mother decides to buy flower garlands from a little girl. Always buy from the little children she says, keeps them off the streets. Another rule which again makes me wonder if I should be happy to be lucky.

From the church, devotees walk out with smiles and black ash crosses on their foreheads. Speakers blare away loudly the novena as people are packed shoulder-to-shoulder 5-feet wide outside the church doors. The site of the church reminds me that redemption is near. However its another ordeal to get inside. We sneak our way slowly inside sideways through rows of devotees clutching at novenas reciting out loud. We only manage to stand a few feet from the confessional box which is full and crowded outside with would-be penitents all lined up.

I make sure that from where I stand I see Our Lady’s icon, the image that for the past 90 years has served as promise for people to lift up their hopes, dreams, prayers and wishes to. As I open my old, dog-eared novena I can’t help but marvel at the faith of these people, faith so thick you can cut it with a knife. Faith or devotion to the promise of an answered petition, whichever it is, to me, is the reason that they are drawn to coming to Baclaran on a Wednesday and not only on a Wednesday. As I finish reading my novena and my thanksgiving prayers and proceed to leave the Church, I recall the trek we went through and how it was for me. That the promise of an answered petition is the value of the penance paid for it.
The Baclaran Phenomenon is, first and foremost, the incredible number of people who come to the Redemptorist Church in Baclaran every Wednesday to make the Perpetual Novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. It is estimated that at least 100,000 devotees come on regular Wednesdays, reaching about 120,000 on the First Wednesday of each month. The biggest turnout of the year is on Ash Wednesday. The crowd for that day simply defies estimate.

Baclaran Church Official Website
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