One of the hardest questions I’ve ever had to answer (apart from, obviously, where’s your boyfriend haha), is when someone asks me ‘Do you still believe in God?‘.
I get asked that every time I happen to mention regularly attending church on Sundays, or if I have to excuse myself early from Sunday brunch to hear mass or if someone sees me take out the rosary during a flight where there’s really bad turbulence.
I got into an argument once with a colleague (who’s pretty well-known for being rude so I really shouldn’t have stooped to his level) because he said that religion is for the weak. At the time, I couldn’t really articulate everything that was in my head because I have to admit that this topic always confuses me.
I grew up strictly Catholic and in a very Catholic country. My mum still goes to church every day and makes regular donations to support our local parish. Its very hard to undo nearly 30 years of tradition even though sometimes I probably do them out of habit. And because if I skip mass I can practically hear mum’s voice in my head nagging me to distraction. Sometimes its not just in my head: she will FaceTime me to make sure that I’m not skipping church. Its actually quite funny and endearing; she probably fears for my eternal soul living in London.
However, I have friends who make a good solid case about why they don’t practice their religion anymore. For them, Catholicism is outdated, judgmental and overly rigorous. It demands too much from its members and its out of touch with today’s reality. It gets in the way of progress, and the current state of the world begs the question that if there is a God where is He during these troubled times?
No one really talks about faith and religion in London, not in my experience anyway. Even Filipinos living abroad find it hard to counter some of the more sensible arguments from those who see religion as a crutch; its hard to defend religion when others see it as the root cause of all the hate crimes and terrorist attacks that regularly plague European cities. Its a shame that the acts of a few extremists brings censure on the sect as a whole.
So no one really talks about being religious or professes their faith in everyday conversations. We just get on with the daily grind, blearily getting into our (scrub) suits for another day in the office. My default answer when asked if I still believe in God is to say, well I don’t know but I believe in SOMETHING.
Cebu and the Sto. Niño
I am not going to recount the history and long relationship Cebu has with the blessed niño, the patron saint of our beautiful city. All I can say is that you’ll be hard-pressed to find a celebration more beautiful and more inspiring than this 9-day celebration in January, culminating in a grand procession every 3rd Sunday of the same month. Yes, even if you’re an atheist this will still amaze you. Scorn it if you like, but to see it and to witness it is an experience.
People come out in droves to the pilgrim center of the Basilica (and the streets beyond) every day for 9 days to attend the novena mass. There’s a novena mass every hour and every hour attendance is always at full-capacity. Every hour.Every day for 9 days. Rain or shine, hell or high water.
Its crowded as all get go, and even when its raining its so bloody humid and you will feel really sticky. You have to rub elbows with the crowd and if you want to have a seat, you might as well forget it. The Basilica is in a part of the city that’s known for pickpockets; you can’t bring a car because the streets are closed to accommodate more mass-goers. Public transportation will only get you as far as maybe three to four blocks away and even then you’ll have to take a ridiculously circuitous route to find the entrance.
It seems like a lifetime for some. And I know some people reading this will think its a waste of time. But for the people of Cebu, this is an integral part of their lives. I remember teaching Nursing in my alma mater from 2009 to 2011, and our college would sponsor one of the novena masses every year. During our sponsored mass day, class schedules are rearranged so that students and clinical instructors alike can go to church. One of my close friends in the Nursing faculty wasn’t even Catholic and even he wanted to attend just to experience what it was like.
People make time for the Niño. For some its because there’s a legend that if you complete the 9-day novena you get to make a wish or something, but I doubt something like that is the basis for the sheer devotion that you can feel coming out of the pilgrim centre. One of the most beautiful moments of the mass is the Batobalani Sa Gugma (literally translated it means “Magnet of Love”) where people raise their hands in prayer, waving them to and fro as if being controlled by, wait for it, a magnet.
I attended one of the novena masses yesterday for the first time in 3 years. And when the choir started singing the opening hymn, I got this pang in my chest and I felt my eyes start to sting with tears. Its like you held on to your emotions for so long and you try to be strong because you have to be in order to survive in another country. And I haven’t turned to anyone or anything for a long long time, and especially not my faith.
I suddenly realised that its been a long year, 2017 I mean. It was probably one of the most difficult – personally and professionally. But I got through it. And I guess I suddenly let myself think about that during mass yesterday for some reason, and I just got really emotional. I was in tears by the middle of the song, people were starting to look at me like I was a nutcase.
The traditional homily was a sign that the Catholic church (in Cebu at least) is ready to enter the 21st century. The surprisingly savvy and hip officiating priest talked about needing followers who go to concerts, drink alcohol and have a regular following on Instagram. They need the millennials who take a million selfies and whose burning desire is to travel the world (while taking selfies! Lol). He said some things that made me think that the church is finally willing to admit that some of its long-held beliefs may be just a touch antiquated. Its arguing for tolerance and acceptance for the first time in a long long while.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. I cannot stand behind a church that will persecute its members for being different. If the Catholic church is telling me that my best friend and his gay husband will burn in hell for loving each other then I will renounce my faith in a heartbeat. But its not doing that. For the first time I can feel the church make an effort to understand. And to accept. That is the kind of church I can get behind.
I think that people will always need religion. We all need something; we need to believe in a higher power especially during difficult times. I mean they say you should rely on yourself. But if I allow myself to believe that there’s only little ole me during a crisis and no one else, I will go insane. I need to believe that there’s someone looking out for me. If that makes me weak then yes I’m weak.
Do You Still Believe?
Like I said. I’m reluctant to answer that question because I don’t want to be a hypocrite. But I think the answer to that question, strange as it seems, is yes. I believe in the power of religion to unite people even if its just for an hour every day. I believe in the capacity of people to do good because of their faith. I believe in something that is not within my remit nor capacity to explain. And for now, that is enough to get me through the day.
Viva Pit Senyor, Cebuanos!