“Faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe. It is not enough that a thing be possible for it to be believed”. Voltaire, (1694 – 1778) French writer and philosopher.
Call it luck or “angel rescue”, but I was in my third year college and writing for the Bicol Mail, a local newspaper when suddenly I felt a nudge on my side and I was a bit uneasy on top of a wooden Colgante Bridge in September 1972, few days before I was arrested by the agents of the Philippine Constabulary for reason that martial law was declared and I was a person of interest to the State. I was on that latched of wooden pathway about 40 meters stretch by about 6 meters wide that connects Penafrancia Avenue, to Dayangdang St. on the east side of the city awaiting the fluvial procession of the Lady. The avenue was named Penafrancia because at the end of this chief artery down south, about a little over a kilometer, was the original shrine of the lady until Basilica Minore was built across the river in Balatas sometime in 1980s, about half-kilometer away from the original shrine.
People were jostling and pushing on that crowded bridge and I bailed out to look for another location where I could observe the fluvial procession as it passes under it but I found none and so I decided to skip the procession, proceeded downtown, a half-kilometer away and loitered around a movie promenade watching thriller photos. Later, I went back and I was aghast to find a collapse bridge, beams disarrayed and few posts still protruding from the water while bodies were being recovered, hoisted in ropes dripping with brownish water down below.
My luck or my angel? It does not matter anymore. I was spared from a major disaster and the trauma of being able to find a good spot to watch the bridge collapse and seeing people slipping their grasp from whatever slab of wood that used to prop them when the bridge was intact; to finally careen to their death breathing their last, – what a horrendous and an unbearable sight!
Bodies were piled at DZRB radio station at Concepcion Pequeňa where they could be identified by relatives and friends. I proceeded to the radio station and had to hop from bodies to bodies laid on the dusty hall which by count rose to about 50 bodies or more to find out if I knew someone from among the dead. Yes, I knew one, the security guard of the local branch of the Philippine National Bank, whom everyone kid as a Jess Lapid, look alike.
It was the first time in the history of the Penafrancia Fiesta celebration where the Lady, halfway to her voyage back to her shrine, has to be transported by land. I was not able to draw any meaning from this tragedy. Was it a message that the ritual be discontinued? After all, the voyadores that came to worship and carry her from shrine to the cathedral and back to her shrine after nine days of novena were mostly drunk, rowdy and wild. The atmosphere was far from a contemplative yet joyous and spiritual event. Some devotees could had been motivated by joyful spirituality when they joined the procession and pledged to be the Lady’s noble escorts year in and year out, but their meaningful devotion is oftentimes diluted by others who had been there by sheer fanaticism and fun.
Another objection that the Lady of Penafrancia could justifiably make was her being paraded on a stretch of water desecrated by spillage of sewage from business establishments and residential houses that lined up the river banks. In the seventies, Naga River already smelled filth and garbage and it needs a miracle to make this river clean and worthy of the passage of the Lady of Penafrancia. Unfortunately, the Lady of Penafrancia is not a Patroness of Garbage Collectors, nor was she a Rain Saint that could pour torrential rains to wash away those filth before she makes her eventful voyage every September. And it is not always good to have miracles so we can flaunt our total contempt towards mother earth and excuse our indolence and lack of urban planning. But if the message was clear and correct, nobody was getting it for the Penafrancia fluvial procession will be there for centuries to come.
Naga City councilor Gabriel H. Bordado, Jr. wrote about this event this way:
“The scene was almost surreal: thousands of barefoot men, their bodies bathed insweat, pushed, shoved, jostled, wriggled and kicked their way into the vortex of yet another mass of anxious humanity. Their objective: to touch a tiny image, if only for a few fleeting seconds. They then let out hair-raising cries of “Viva La Virgen” to the applause of about a quarter of a million spectators who jammed the old Naga City’s edifices and narrow streets. For the uninitiated, the scene would appear to be a throwback into the days of anito (local deity) worshippers. The primeval cries, the element of machismo, and the frenzy fit well into one’s concept of an ancient religious rite as described in some scholarly tomes.”
The Virgen of Penafrancia or the Lady of Penafrancia or the Patroness of Bicol, or simply’ Ina,’ (mother) as she is reverently called by the Bicolanos, is said to be a healer of the sick and the comforter of the afflicted. Hundreds would flock to her on Sunday masses and thousands during the Feast of Penafrancia to pay homage to her miraculous feat.
Devotees would patiently line up beside her platform and wait for their turn to wipe with their handkerchiefs, the Lady’s feet or the pedestal of her tiny statuette, one at a time then they would kiss this piece of cloth, tuck it in their purse, wallet or pocket as some treasure to behold or amulet of sort against sickness or evilness or for some other expectation of indulgence or blessings. To be able to walk up to the Lady’s platform and wipe her feet or her pedestal is symbolic enough of our affinity with the divine and the holy and our testament to our his indisputable faith that though we may not receive a swift response for our supplication, Ina would nonetheless keep tab of our presence and grant our wish someday, sometime.
The Lady’s healing power must be for real as devotees have not let up going to church on Sundays and other church holidays and especially during her annual feast. As a catholic who believe in angels and miracles, I have no reason to doubt that Ina has the power to heal the sick and console the troubled souls. And as we aged and look to the sunset in the horizon that may not be that too far after all, we assured her that she could also count on our souls as we pray for our own intentions and salvation.