Review– The Way of the Cross: Suffering Selfhoods in the Roman Catholic Philippines

The Way of the Cross: Suffering Selfhoods in the Roman Catholic Philippines
Julius Bautista
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2019

In contemporary scholarship on the sociology of religion, the importance of “everyday religion” is repeatedly addressed. The religion of ordinary people is described as “reflexive”: people get spiritual information from various sources and utilize it as they wish in their daily lives. They may belong to a specific religion, but they consider information within as well as outside it, and combine it with their life necessities and personal agendas to develop their own spiritual life (Ammerman 2006; McGuire 2008). This theoretical setting seems appropriate when recognizing the importance of mutual interactions and reflexive processes in the networks of human relationships, including individuals, groups, networks, organizations, national society with its infrastructure, and the global networks beyond.

One important aspect of everyday, lived religion is the problem of pain. How to find meaning in pain is as important as how to avoid it. Pain is not only physical and medical but also spiritual and ideological. What is important is not only individual pain but also collective and sympathetically engaged pain. When people live communally yet individually, personal religion may exist but only in connectivity with other people. Those who participate in collective religious practices are investing in their personal agendas as well as collective goals. This aura of collectively personal religiosity exists and can work extensively in the national space of discourse as well as the global and neoliberal hegemonic space. It can connect the community to broader and multilayered networks.

We can easily imagine this to be an important aspect of religion in the Philippines, where most of the population is Christian and from where many workers and migrants are sent all over the world. The book starts with the sensitive observation of a microcosm of a religious devotion of specific people committed to their personal panata (vow) yet in a communal space. It then develops the analysis far beyond that small world through juxtapositions of historical, ideological, topographical, phenomenological, and sociological backgrounds and meanings. The author provides colorful sketches of the spiritual world of Pampanga, the Philippines, and beyond by (1) focusing first on a reexamination of the historical development of the meaning of pain for those who are ready to inflict it on themselves, and how it came to be introduced into and developed as a devotional practice in Pampanga; (2) delving into the world of flagellation and crucifixion as a participant observer to describe what the personhood of those ready to suffer for their panata goes through and aims at attaining in the midst of a dense intersubjective mode of pain in a phenomenological manner; and (3) analyzing the national institutional discourse of Church and state on people’s suffering in a way meaningfully connectable to the experiences described in the chapters on the Pampanga crucifixion rites.

This is not a simple monograph on inductive fieldwork research with dense descriptions and data. Rather, it is a fundamental reexamination of the well-known and somewhat representative Filipino religious devotion in the context of those involved as well as national society.

The book begins with an introduction titled “An Ethnography of Suffering Selfhood,” briefly describing Pampanga’s religious history as well as famed crucifixion rites, where the Pasyon (Hispanized and localized Christian dramatic narrative centered on the passion of Christ on the cross) is sung, nagdarame (flagellants) walk along the street, and the drama of the crucifixion is enacted by groups and persons, with namamakus (those who are crucified) at the center. Beginning from this, the author draws the reader into his application of “suffering selfhood” to the contemporary Philippines by organizing the thesis into three parts: “Ideologies,” “Investments,” and “Institutions.”

Part 1, “Ideologies,” has only one chapter, “The Ideology of Suffering in Medieval and Colonial Domains.” It traces how the ideology of inflicting pain on oneself historically developed from the beginning of Christianity. The author first shows various elements that can be part of the cult of penitents, seen through the concept of disciplina (discipline). He then describes how the flagellation culture was welcomed upon its arrival in Pampanga and continues to be accepted despite the Church’s change in formal policy against such devotion. He explains how such acceptance symbolizes the dual nature of Pampanga’s Christian legacy: the “success” of missionary endeavors and “incontrollable” localized devotion.

Part 2, “Investments,” is the main part of the book. Its three chapters examine the suffering personhood in the familiar and oft-described rite from three devotional aspects of the complete rites. The author mainly adopts a phenomenological perspective on the intersubjective self. He makes his own “investment,” that is, participant observation, as an academic who shares the devotees’ soundscape, empathy, and participation in the drama.

Chapter 2, “The Ensounded Body: The Aural Environment of Passion Chanting,” describes how the aural reading of the Pasyon (pabasa) clings deep throughout the region, so that people never fail to share the experience of that contagious tone of pain. Especially noteworthy is the description of fatigued voices conveying the familiar rhythm and vocality of the Pasyon over the rough sound system, which draws flagellants to the site. The author demonstrates his topographic interpretation of the role of pabasa as giving an aural gravity to the intersubjective relationship of suffering personhoods taking part in collective mourning through that sound.

Chapter 3, “Pagdarame: Self-Flagellation as Triangulated Empathy,” is a kind of micro sociological (re)interpretation of the self-flagellants’ experience. Bloody enactment of the devotion is described in detail, but the focus is more on how the flagellants demonstrate their empathy (pagdarame) for the loved ones in pain as well as for the crucified Christ. They do so not by being near and sharing the experiences with the loved ones, but rather by the depth of the suffering they go through.

Chapter 4, “The Way of the Cross: Nailing and the Ritualization of Trust,” is the climax of the book, beginning with the surprising story of how the passion play with crucifixion rites began in the town. A local healer decided to have himself ritually nailed to a cross in an effort to gain supernatural powers. He entrusted his friend to write a script on the drama of the crucifixion of Christ, and then bequeathed the whole passion play to him; his family is still at the center of the main dramatic rites in San Pedro Cutud, Pampanga. Namamakus are described as nailed to the cross in the stages of the drama, surrounded by tourists and often supported by the local government, which treats the event as a tourist attraction. The comrades of the namamakus are described as implementing the drama play as well as whipping and nailing. On the one hand, the author stresses the intersubjective relationship among these people who are connected through trust (tiuala). On the other hand, he points out that namamakus make use of this relationship to attain their own panata by making the event successful in this highly publicized and commercialized way. The author also shows that despite various motivations—such as gratitude to God, easing a loved one’s suffering, or gaining supernatural healing powers—namamakus’ devotion is never intended to atone for sins, as many researchers, observers, and clerics have interpreted. He notes that most female namamakus are local healers: disciples of the original female namamaku, expecting to gain healing powers like their teacher. People who go through the rite of crucifixion, often annually, are described as having personal intentions and investments, while their personhood is not completely individualized but deeply intermingled with a dense social milieu of wild but solemn festivity. Here again, the author provides detailed descriptions and interpretations of the discourse of namamakus and each step they take in a phenomenological manner.

Part 3, “Institutions,” connects the descriptions in the previous chapters to a broader national context in relation to the Church and the Philippine state. Chapter 5, “Clerical Perspectives on Passion Rituals,” clarifies that while the Church denounces the Pampanga crucifixion rites as wrongly imitating Christ’s atonement, some people in the Church—especially local clerics—are sympathetic to them, recognizing the practitioners’ serious intent and deep faith. The author introduces the concept of “inculturation” from the theological vocabulary of the Catholic leadership for understanding this attitude, indicating that while the Church is respectful of the localized faith, it expects to transform it into an authentic faith.

Chapter 6, “Suffering Selfhood in Transnational Domains,” is about the discourses the Catholic Church and Philippine government have constructed to praise the suffering of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), especially after the democratization from 1986. According to the author, that was when the Church and state had a relatively cordial relationship and constructed the common discourse on the moral value of OFWs. The Church is described as praising OFWs as a new kind of heroic suffering missionaries, while the state is seen as endorsing OFWs as bagong bayani (new heroes). The whole nation is put under the hegemonic discourse of praising OFWs in the global neoliberal market. The author suggests that the national spirituality of suffering selfhood (partly represented by the Pampanga rites) may be easily connected to the people’s readiness to face the difficulty of working abroad. He provides the example of a former nagdarame who believes that because he was successful in dealing with the agony of pagdarame (act of empathy by flagellation), he can endure the suffering of an OFW. The author calls this “export-quality martyr.”

The final chapter, “Epilogue: Suffering, Personhood, and Christendom’s Changing Face,” summarizes the discussion.

This is a reflective work on a well-known local Christian devotion, rather than typical fieldwork research on an unknown phenomenon with thick descriptions of newfound facts and data. The main aim of the author, as shown by the book’s subtitle, is to revisit and reflect in a fresh and holistic way on how the construction of suffering selfhood can be meaningful in a local setting in multiple ways in a specific topography and social milieu, and how that can be uniquely connected to the national and globalized life of the so-called only Christian nation in Asia.

The book can also be read as an ethnography of devotional practices in Pampanga, with firsthand voices from those going through with flagellation and crucifixion as personal investments in intersubjective endeavor. The author is also invested in this event as a participant-observer-researcher who experienced it from the inside. He observes the phenomena, especially what the devotees experience as pain, using various human scientific approaches, especially Foucauldian philosophy about discipline, a phenomenological approach, and references to soundscape and topography. He seems intentional in reflecting on what he as an invested researcher and participant has experienced, rather than focusing on objectified facts.

As the analysis moves from suffering selfhood toward national society and beyond, the storyline becomes more open to wider academic discussion about national and migrant religious culture. The discussion is academically stimulating, though the argument is not necessarily supported by broader evidence—nor does that seem the author’s intent. The author’s hypothetical insistence does not seem to be substantiated by political, economic, social, and psychological developments in national society and beyond. Yet his endeavor to connect a local construction of suffering selfhood to the suffering newly experienced in the context of globalization is a necessary step for further discussion.

As this reviewer is a researcher of Christian studies, especially the Catholic Church’s involvement in sociopolitical issues, this review ends with some observations from this field.

First, in the conclusion of Chapter 2 the author writes, “In thinking about how the pabasa cultivates an intersubjective emotional contagion, we can understand why Passion rituals are practiced in such great numbers in Pampanga province (as opposed to the entire Christianized Philippines)” (p. 45). This may be so, but there is no comparison of how the pabasa culture in Pampanga is distinct from others. In relation to this, I remember a study on a large-scale El Shaddai celebration in Metro Manila as being described in a similarly topographic manner conscious of soundscape (Wiegele 2005). The religious contagion through the soundscape described in Chapter 2 may not be peculiar to Pampanga as mentioned by the author; it may be found in other cases in the Philippine religious landscape of various provinces.

Regarding the description of inculturation introduced by clerics in Chapter 5, the author seems a bit too inclined to believe the Church is trying to find a point of moderation. Part 2 clearly demonstrates that devotees do not participate in the ritual as a form of penance. That means that the basic understanding of Church leaders, who advocate inculturation theology about the devotees based on the understanding that it is a mistaken act of penance, is therefore wrong. As pastors of their parish and diocese, they fail to understand or listen to these devotees and their motives—unlike the author himself, who must have stayed shorter in the parish or diocese than these clerics. The idea of inculturation rather functions as a pretense to listen and a actual refusal to acknowledge the sincere motivation of “folk” believers for their devotion. This is shown in the Church leaders’ general and abstract discussion of the topic, without much analysis of actual cases. Even after so many years of the presence of the clergy in the Philippines, the Church is far from understanding the reality of the faithful in the field. This inculturation can be more appropriately understood as a tactic of the Church with its limited manpower to manage the many Catholics in the nation. The Church shows that it understands and represents people, while it proceeds with its own agenda without a deep concern for the everyday religion of ordinary people. By doing this, the Church can go on to play the part of being “representative of the majority” (Miyawaki 2019). In trying to show the intersubjective space of relationship, the author avoids discussing the cleavages and power games under the hegemony of the Church leadership. This creates a problem when developing the discussion about the microscopic milieu in Part 2 into the broader implications in Part 3.

I find a lack of balance in the author’s presentation of the Church’s stance on OFWs in Chapter 6. The Church never simply praises these “missionaries,” as it has conservative views on the family and regards as problematic the separation of families by parents leaving their children to work abroad (Villegas 2014). For the Philippines to be maintained as a Christian nation, parents are expected to educate their children to inherit the parents’ faith. Pastoral care by the clergy is not enough, as its members are few compared to the number of faithful. Naturally, the OFW phenomenon is problematic for the Church. There is indeed a view that OFWs are seen by the Church as heroic missionaries who sacrifice themselves for their family—this is partly a blessing for the global Catholic Church as well. However, for the Philippine Church it is a reluctant view given the reality of increasing numbers of Filipinos going to work abroad. Just as in the case of inculturation, the Church seems to appropriate the unfavorable reality of many separated families by rereading the situation positively so as to praise the OFWs as missionary heroes and advise them as spiritual leaders. By doing so, the Church seeks to maintain its influential position as the nation’s spiritual leader.

My critiques may be viewed positively as part of my academic dialogue with the book. I highly recommend this book as a quality academic monograph on one of the representative devotional practices of the Philippines, with deep and unique insights and foresights.

Miyawaki Satoshi 宮脇 聡史
Graduate School of Language and Culture, Osaka University


Ammerman, Nancy T., ed. 2006. Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives. New York: Oxford University Press.
McGuire, Meredith B. 2008. Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Miyawaki Satoshi. 2019. Fuiripin Katorikku kyokai no seiji kanyo: Kokumin o kantoku suru “Kokyo shukyo” フィリピン・カトリック教会の政治関与―国民を監督する「公共宗教」[Political involvement of the Philippine Catholic Church: “public religion” overseeing the nation]. Suita: Osaka University Press.
Villegas, Socrates. 2014. Poverty, Migration and Family. CBCP Online., accessed July 29, 2020.
Wiegele, Katherine. 2005. Investing in Miracles: El Shaddai and the Transformation of Popular Catholicism in the Philippines. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.