Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Catholic customs from the eyes of Rizal

Let’s face it. Sometime in our humdrum lives, we have wondered how a mother might have felt expelling a future hero out of her womb in one of her eleven pregnancies. We know an adjective that aptly describes this experience: excruciating. Doña Teodora Morales Alonso y Quintos, dutiful wife of Don Francisco Engracio Rizal Mercado y Alejandro, encountered this adjective in all its un-anaesthetised ruthlessness in the night of Wednesday, 19 June 1861.

Doña Teodora, who can already be considered a veteran mother at that time, underwent a protracted and difficult labour while giving birth to her seventh child and second son, because of his unusually large head. In the throes of childbirth, Doña Teodora pledged the child to the Virgin of Antipolo, and vowed to bring the child in a pilgrimage to her sanctuary. It would take seven years for Doña Teodora’s pledge to be fulfilled, when the child José travelled with Don Francisco to the shrine of the Virgin of Antipolo. We can only imagine him singing María, bella estrella de Antipolo.

Three days later, in the morning of Saturday, 22 June 1861, amidst band music (owing to the presence of two bands in Calamba for a local festival, probably the antevísperas of the town fiesta in honour of Saint John the Baptist, titular of the Church of Calamba), P. Rufino Collantes, parish priest of Calamba, baptised the three-day-old child as José Rizal Mercado, his godfather being P. Pedro Casañas. Both priests were presbíteros (the usual term for native secular priests) and were friends of the family. Noticing the large head of the infant, P. Collantes counselled the parents to take good care of the child, for someday he would become a great man.

The parents picked the name José because Doña Teodora was a devotee of Saint Joseph, and probably because Wednesday is the traditional votive day of Saint Joseph. His second name Protasio was taken from the calendar. The principal saint for 19 June is Saint Juliana of Falconieri (the child could have been named Julián), and Saints Gervase and Protase are just commemorated on the day, according to the 1857 Missale Romanum. In the Dominican calendar, however, the twin saints, protectors of the City and of the See of Milan, are honoured.

[Note. There were only two known feasts of Saint Joseph at that time, one on 19 March, honouring him as Spouse of the Blessed Virgin, and another on the Third Sunday after Easter (in 1861, this fell on 21 April), honouring him as Patron of the Church, which eventually was transferred to the Wednesday within the Third Week of Easter, and then suppressed. Currently, his other feast is 1 May, honouring him as both Workman and Patron of the Church.]

Now, let’s indulge ourselves with a short diatribe against one of the many fantastic reasons our millenarian Rizalist compatriots propound to advance their dogma on the divinity of Rizal. They say that José Rizal is the Spanish equivalent of their Latin tetragrammaton Jove Rex Al. Only two of these three words exist in Latin and only one is declined in the nominative. Jove or, correctly, Iove, as explained here, is the ablative of Iuppiter, the chief Roman deity. Rex means king, and Al is the chemical symbol of aluminium.

For some Rizalists, Jove Rex Al summarises the Supreme Being that created the world, having bestowed upon it the non-existent meaning of God King of All, while in reality it just takes the meaning, and this with many linguistic misgivings, of With Jupiter, King of Aluminium. If Rizal were a deity, he would have at least revealed his name in the correct declension. Or, perhaps, this name is expressed in a language isolate waiting to be discovered.

In any case, let’s now go to his works.

Rizal’s novels
Rizal’s writings explored many religious themes, and in his two novels, we read of processions, sermons, Solemn High Masses, Requiems, indulgences, hellfire, Christmas, etc. Noli me tangere, itself is thought to be taken from the admonition of Christ to Mary Magdalene in John 20:17, although it seems more appropriate, taking into account Rizal’s dedication for the book, that he took the name from a malady of the eye that restricts eyesight, a cancer known to ophthalmologists as, well, noli me tangere.

We shall not be tackling the Noli and the Fili here, both of which have been translated into many languages. Probably, except Latin. So, we shall be exposing an excerpt of a partial translation of these two books into the language of the Eternal City.

The Noli
Noli me tangere is cancer of the eyelids. This was noted by the French writer Dominique Blumenstihl (read here the original French):
Noli me tangere (Touch me not) is the name which ophthalmologists give to the cancer of the eyelids. It is also the name of a flower, the touch-me-not balsam (Impatiens noli-tangere). When this flower attains maturity, at the slightest shock, the capsules suddenly shrink and their valves retract projecting the seeds around them. It is also the title of the famous novel of the ophthalmologist José Rizal.
According to A manual of the diseases of the human eye, among the maladies of the eyelids that can be considered noli me tangere are the scirrhus palpebrae, the cancer palpebrae, and the malignant chalazion.

The book was published in 1886 by the Berliner Buchdruckerie-Aktiengesellschaft in Berlin, Germany.

Front of Noli me tangere

The Fili
El Filibusterismo was published in 1896 by the Imprimerie F. Meyer-Van Loo in Ghent, Belgium. Filibusterismo refers to the act or the whole system of being a filibustero, which refers to a pirate, a plunderer, or a freebooter. The use of the term in the novel suggests that it carries the meaning of subversivism or subversion, and is perhaps used to describe the actions of the main character Simuon, who advances the interests of the government in order to incite the people to rebellion. He plunders and assists in plundering them in order to achieve his ultimate objectives. We note in Rizal’s letter to Blumentritt that the term was not yet widespread in the Philippines at the time of the novel’s printing.

Front of El Filibusterismo

The Makamisa
Unbeknownst to many, Rizal wrote a third novel, and did not complete it. It exists in two drafts: one in Tagalog; another in Spanish. Rizal scholarship has decided to call this novel, based upon the title of the Tagalog draft, Makamisa, which roughly means after Mass. The folios of the Spanish draft are not arranged coherently, and give any enterprising researcher freedom in arranging the material to produce a sensible bulk of text. We have two published versions of this novel: one in English, with the Tagalog draft, by Ambeth Ocampo; another in Filipino, translated from Spanish, by Nilo Ocampo. The two Ocampos are not related.

In the spirit of uniformity, below is an excerpt of the novel (with its Latin translation), arranged by this author.

Front of Makamisa
(from this author)

The plot of Makamisa hinges upon the discomfiture of the Spanish friar who is the curate of the town of Pili, discomfiture which impels the friar to refuse Communion to the people and push the missal during the principal Mass on Passion Sunday. He is apparently upset because Cecilia, the town mayor’s daughter who just arrived from Manila, refused to make the palm frond that he would carry during the procession of palms on Palm Sunday. This happenstance shakes the town mayor’s household, the town, and even the church.

Observations in Makamisa
Frequent Communion beforehand meant receiving Communion once or twice a week. Usually, devotees receive Communion on their votive days. For example, in old almanaques, devotees of the Sacred Heart are required to receive Communion every First Friday. Mass-produced (ignore the pun) hosts were not yet available in those times. Priests make their own hosts, and we have existing examples of host tongs, known as hostiario throughout the archipelago, in some of our ecclesiastic museums, with which priests moulded and formed their hosts.
The Parish Priest therefore assumeth all his care, in treating, preserving and administering with the appropriate worship and reverence this venerable Sacrament; and also in that his parishioners might adore it with devotion, and may receive it in a holy manner and frequently, principally on greater solemnities of the year: for this he shall remind them many times of the preparation, the greater veneration and interior respect and the humble posture, with which they ought to approach such a divine Sacrament; and that, having went to sacramental confession and fasting at least since midnight, the might adore humbly and both knees knelt the Sacrament, and receive it with reverence, the men separated from the women, whenever it be possible.
In learning that the curate of Pili did not distribute Communion on Passion Sunday because one lady refused to make his palm frond, we are acquainted with the capriciousness with which Rizal wanted us to behold the friar, notwithstanding the esteem with which his parishioners and confreres accord him.

Blessing of children
At the beginning of the narrative, we read of an unwed mother who works as servant in the household of the town mayor. Upon her neck constantly breathes the town mayor’s wife, who believes that she and her daughter are bringing bad luck to the house. She induces the poor lass to loan money from her to have the child blessed by the parish priest. The mayor’s wife particularly detests the child, knowing that it is her legitimate granddaughter from her son who is currently in the seminary, thinking that it is the Devil’s cunning way to railroad her son’s ecclesiastic career. We are left to conjecture if she wants her granddaughter blessed out of pure hatred or out of some little concern for the child’s spiritual wellbeing.

The blessing of children purposes to impart upon the child the protection of God, and extend the blessing unto the parents and the entire household. This is different from the churching of women, which is an emulation of the example of the Blessed Virgin’s submission to the Old Law. For this blessing, Rizal regales us with the tariff or cost that covers the trouble for the priest and for the candle.

The rubrics in the Manual de Manila does not speak of any taper that is kindled during this blessing. We have the rubrics below:
On the determined day and time, the children gather in the church, and it would be appropriate that thither their parents or their teachers accompany them, that without difficulty they be ordered in modesty and silence, and the boys being separated from the girls. The Priest approacheth them, and addresseth them with a brief and simple admonition, in accordance with what might appear suitable to him.
Then follow the prayers, after which, we read the rubric below:
Afterwards, making upon them the sign of the cross with the right hand, he blesseth them.
And after the blessing:
Finally, he sprinkleth them with blessed water in the form of a cross.
No mention of taper whatsoever.

[Note. It is normal for candles to be very expensive in those days since the Church, striving to set aside for God only the best, only approved candles made of unadulterated matter, namely, pure beeswax, no admixtures of other oils. Pure beeswax candles remain to be very expensive even to this day. A six-piece set of one-metre altar candles, nowadays, made with 10% beeswax costs around PhP 10,000, and that’s just 10% in purity.]

Altar decorations
Here we read of the cortina, the traditional velvet curtain hung around the high altar on great solemnities, such as Easter and Corpus Christi. This is a very prevalent practice in the Philippines and we are not lacking of old photographs to support this observation. But the curtain does not remain open. In the novel, we read of the curtain dropping as the priest exits the sanctuary after Mass. In the Manual de Manila, in the context of Corpus Christi devotions, we read concerning the curtain:
In the evenings, after praying the Rosary, singing the Litany of Loreto and the Salve, the Tantum ergo is sung, as is said above, and having concluded the Prayer, if the reservation is not of the last day, or if it is of a single exposition during Mass, the Priest knelt upon the lowest step, censeth the Sacrament, until the curtain closeth in its entirety.
Below we have a picture of the cortina used in the old Church of Antipolo:

High altar with cortina

The cloth is suspended from a crown above the sanctuary and allowed to hang and drape in magnificent folds, as though it were the backdrop for royal heraldic arms. Sans the cortina, the altar looked like this:

High altar without cortina

Consider the crown suspended in the photo. It is above the domed niche where the image of the Blessed Virgin is enshrined. Also note that the altarpiece is visible in the second picture while it is completely covered by a dark cloth in the first picture. However, it must be noted that the first picture is not taken during Holy Week since the chandeliers are not covered in purple.

Church music
The opening of the novel places the events on Passion Sunday, the day when images are veiled in purple, evoking the Gospel of the day:
But Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple (John 8:59).
During Lent, the music of the organ and other instruments are suppressed in deference to the penitential nature of the season. But in the novel, we read of an orchestra playing for the Mass. We even hear of the bells pealing, at a time when only the crotalus is allowed. We cannot guess if Rizal is using liturgical abuse to foreshadow another abuse, or he is simply describing the widespread practice in the Philippine Church.

We are not pretending here to appraise and evaluate Rizal’s view on the popular pieties that the Church tolerated in those eras (although we can gather enough from his mention of the Holy Week devotions that abounded in Pili as las desgracias de la cuaresma).They are to us, who are currently faced with a dearth of rubrics, guidebooks and photographic documentation, a small snippet into what actually happened inside our churches back then, something which the ease of the modern SLR camera could no longer capture or immortalise. These help us appreciate some of the curious appurtenances of our high altars and sanctuaries, breathe meaning to otherwise lifeless phrases such as decoration for Corpus Christi, induce us to imagine religious scenes in our minds and interpret them afresh under the mantle of tradition, and allow us to see, amidst the subtly satiric yet vibrant language of a compatriot, burnished by years of misguided elaborations and pseudo-authoritative additions, and galvanised by a resurrected sense of secular superiority over the Church, the richness of our Catholic patrimony.

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