How lovely are Your dwelling-places, Yahweh Sabaoth. My whole being yearns and pines for Yahweh’s courts; My heart and my body cry out for joy to the living God. –Psalm 84:1-2
Last March 16, midway through Lent, our community’s Intercessory Ministry (fittingly called Elijah Ministry) took a whole bus-load of us on a trip to Pampanga for Visita Iglesia–the Lenten practice of visiting 7 churches to devoutly pray the Way of the Cross. I had only been on Visita Iglesia once before, and it was in the impossible traffic of Manila on a Maundy Thursday night, squeezing through throngs of devotees. Don’t misread me, it is a good sign that hundreds of Filipinos still practice the devotion every year. But I never repeated the practice because honestly, it was very, er, challenging to maintain a prayerful state amidst the horde and the heat. Not much blood and tears, but a whole lot of SWEAT.
So with my first opportunity to join this yearly pilgrimage, Peter and I signed up for the whole day affair. And how glad are we that we did–seeing for the first time old churches that were simply breathtaking in their beauty, realizing with surprise how a lot of Pampanga churches housed first class relics of different saints, but most of all, witnessing the faith and resilience of a people who had gone through hell but survived by clinging desperately to their God.
Our first stop was St. James the Apostle Church (also known as Betis Church, and famed as the Sistine Chapel of the Philippines) in Guagua, Pampanga. A Baroque style structure, originally made entirely of wood in the 17th century, it was rebuilt in concrete after recurrent fires around 1770. In the 1930’s, the last Spanish priest to handle the church commissioned a local artist, Macario Ligon (and then later his nephew and former assistant, Victor Ramos), to adorn the interior, most notably the high ceiling, with lovely paintings that might have given Michelangelo a run for his money. If it weren’t inappropriate, I would very much have liked to lie on a mat at the very center of the church and just stare at the intricately decorated ceiling.
Not that the main altar isn’t also something to behold–gilded retablos of saints venerated in Augustinian spirituality.
Another church we visited was the Immaculate Conception Parish, also in Guagua. Just in Manila alone, there are at least 3 Cathedrals named after Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception: one in Cubao, one in Pasig, and the main Cathedral Basilica of the Archdiocese of Manila in Intramuros. Having yet another church dedicated to our Lady affirms how close our Mother is to the hearts of Filipinos (and, I’d like to believe, vice versa).
In contrast to the colorful interiors of Betis Church, this one, perhaps in homage to its patroness, is simply and elegantly white. And after walking through what seemed like one of the town’s busiest intersections just to get to it, entering the pristine and surprisingly quiet church had an almost instant calming effect.
It’s funny how I’ve marveled at historic churches in other countries, but have never really had the chance to discover what my own country has to offer (and we’ve only been talking about one province! I’m excited to find out what else is out there). Visiting these churches, I felt an unmistakable sense of pride in being not just Catholic, but a Filipino one, sharing in the history and faith of the people who have lived, loved, and prayed here.
Read the second installment on this series in Visita Iglesia: Honoring Holiness.