SAN PEDRO CUTUD, Philippines – Seven Filipino Roman Catholic devotees, including a woman, were nailed to wooden crosses in a Good Friday reenactment of Jesus Christ’s suffering that was watched by thousands of spectators but frowned upon by church leaders.
Three devotees wearing crowns of twigs were nailed to crosses by villagers dressed as Roman centurions on a dusty hill in San Pedro Cutud village, and four others were nailed to crosses in nearby farming villages in San Fernando city north of Manila, tourism officer Ching Pangilinan said.
The spectacle reflects a unique brand of Catholicism that merges church traditions with folk superstitions. Many of the mostly impoverished penitents undergo the ritual to atone for sins, pray for the sick or for a better life, or give thanks for what they believe were God-given miracles.
The Lenten rituals are frowned upon by church leaders in the Philippines, Asia’s largest Roman Catholic nation, especially if the events are used to boost tourism and business. The reenactments of the crucifixion, however, have persisted and become a tourist attraction in the largely unknown villages in Pampanga province, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the capital.
While the crucifixions have become a tradition for villagers, they still leave many foreign tourists bewildered.
“It’s terrible,” said Luke Henkel from Florida. “You wanna stop it.”
Mayor Edwin Santiago of San Fernando, where San Pedro Cutud lies, said more than 400 police officers were deployed and first-aid stations set up to look after the huge crowds.
“We provide assistance because we can’t stop the influx of tourists,” Pangilinan said. “We don’t promote it as a festival but it’s rather a show of respect to a local tradition.”
Villagers used the crowd-drawing events to peddle food, water, fans, umbrellas and souvenirs and rent out parking slots and toilets. A leading cellphone company provided tents for shade with its name embossed on them.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas said it’s best for Catholics to mark Lent with prayers and acts of love and charity.
“Instead of spilling your blood on the streets, why not walk into a Red Cross office and donate blood? Choose to share life. Share your blood,” Villegas said in remarks posted on a Catholic church website.
Friday’s reenactment of Christ’s crucifixion was the 32nd for Ruben Enaje, a 57-year-old sign painter who began his yearly rite after surviving a fall from a building. He plans to stop when he turns 60.
Maryjane Sazon, a 39-year-old beauty salon worker, said she joined the reenactments seven years ago in the hope of being cured of severe headaches and a nervous breakdown. Her act Friday was dedicated to her sick sister.
Prior to the cross nailings, dozens of male penitents walked several kilometers (miles) along village streets while beating their bare backs with sharp bamboo sticks and pieces of wood. Some had their backs cut to keep them bloody.
Foreigners have been banned from taking part since an Australian comic was nailed to a cross under a false name a few years ago near Pampanga. Authorities also believe that a Japanese man was nailed to cross as part of a porn film in 1996.