Penitents do self-flagellation to ask for divine favors

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(CNN Philippines) — Children flocked around Aries Dizon as he walked, barefoot under the midday sun, his face covered with a black cloth, and his back bare and red as he whips himself with a burilyos. He was doing his panata — a vow to God.

Like Jesus, he allowed the children to come near him oblivious even to the stares of onlookers and the clicking of cameras.

He was practicing the ritual of pamagparaya, or self-flagellation, an annual Holy Week devotion in which would subject himself to a fraction of Jesus’ suffering.

‘Message from God’

"It was a message from God," Aries said.

It all started with a dream, the 30-year-old tricycle driver explained.

In his dream, he saw himself making a panata, so the following year, he started practicing the ritual, raising to the heavens his petition of good health for his mother who has diabetes.

He pledged to observe the practice for two days — during Maundy Thursday and Good Friday — for 15 years.

Aries Dizon shows his burilyos and face cover. He has been practicing self-flagellation for nine years.

'Big show'

Every Lent, the sleepy barangay of Santa Lucia comes to life.

Though one of San Fernando’s smaller villages, it attracts a lot of tourists during the Holy Week — along with Cutud in Barangay San Pedro and Barangay San Juan — with its staging of the passion of the Christ that involves actual crucifixion.

According to the San Fernando Tourism Office, Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, was written by an amateur playwright. It was a local version of the passion of the Christ and was first performed in Cutud 59 years ago. But it was in 1962 that the first actual crucifixion was performed.

A few years later, in 1965, the play was performed outside Barangay Betis, Guagua, and eventually it became a tourist attraction, prompting the Catholic Church to disagree with the crucifixion and self-flagellation rituals.

“The issue is the public nature and usually it ends up as tourism. And you even earn money from doing this it becomes a big show,” Fr. Francis Lucas, president and CEO of the Catholic Media Network Corp., explained.

A burilyo ― a whip using polished bamboo sticks ― sells for P300.

According to some locals, a burilyo — a whip using polished bamboo sticks — sells for P300.

Fr. Francis added that the said acts of penitence goes against the scripture, which says the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.

“So you have to give respect to life and the sacredness of life and the sacredness of the body,” he said.

Plea to the heavens

Another resident of Santa Lucia, Marvin Ocampo, vowed to practice self-flagellation for 24 years to petition for the good health of his family, particularly his wife who has cancer. This year marks one decade of his practice.

Marvin Ocampo explains that the ritual takes him an hour. As part of his panata, he also refrains from drinking alcohol a week before.

Dr. Anril Tiatco, a University of the Philippines Diliman professor who studied the practice, said that one reason for the persistence of observing a religious vow is to petition for good health.

He added that the public nature of a panata is essential in its performance.

"The public is very crucial to the performance to convince the Almighty that: I'm doing this and I have witnesses," he said.

To begin the ritual, those who made the vow of self-flagellation in Santa Lucia must first get their backs wounded with a panabad — a wood block with a handle that has pieces of broken glass attached to it.

A Pampanga resident shows off a panabad, which sells for P500 in Cutud.

Locals explained that the pieces of broken glass in a panabad is changed yearly. A panabad sells for P500 in Cutud, according to them.

After wounding their backs, they would walk for 30 minutes to an hour, making stops in front of stations to pray. Stations include areas where a church is located or where a pabasa, or the chanting of the passion of the Christ, is being held.

They would end the ritual at the cathedral where they would lie face down with their arms spread in a seeming surrender to the will of God.

Spiritual act

After doing the ritual, Aries said that he would feel like all his sins had been washed away.

"The person I’m doing the panata for is dead already," he calmly said. "But I still continue because I made a vow."

For Aries, though the ritual of self-flagellation is practiced in public, it is a spiritual act between him and God.

CNN Philippines’ Miro Capili contributed to this report.