Last month, on a spur of the moment decision, my co-workers and I booked promo flights to Cebu. We had no itinerary in mind; we were just stressed out employees desperately wanting a break. So last week, we hopped on the plane for a thirty-minute flight to the Philippine’s oldest city. I have been there a lot of times in the past but they were usually career-related trips like seminars and conferences. Thus, I was never really able to go around and see the sights. At that point, we had planned out (more or less), our route: We go on a city tour and then proceed south to visit a shrine of the Virgin Mary.
I’ve never seen anything like it, though. Well, it’s not surprising as I’ve never been anywhere near Europe, where towering cathedrals and magnificent squares inspire awe among millions of tourists. Of course, these monuments are now valued only for their historical significance. But, this is not so in the Philippines. We take religion very seriously here, albeit, in my opinion, too seriously and not always to our own good. So, upon arriving at Simala, where the shrine is located, I was dumbstruck by the sheer size of the place and the building; what immediately came to my mind was the implication of its cost, and it’s even a long way from being finished. Gigantic statues of the Virgin were everywhere. About a hundred steps on the stairway led to the Church, where masses were held every hour, at the center of the palatial edifice. The inner sanctum housed more statues, the most revered among them was that of the weeping Virgin. There was also a museum with vast paintings and hundreds of religious memorabilia, some looking very expensive . The walls and glass compartments around were littered with hundreds of petition letters and their corresponding miracle testimonials.
Chiefly, we went there to pray and offer petitions. As it was my father’s death anniversary, I wanted to light a candle for him. The candle cost me Php 35.00. I also wrote down prayers, but I donated Php100.00 for that. In a nearby booth sat a dour looking nun with a thick pad of receipt in front of her. I learned later that those who wanted to have pamisa (these are specific intentions announced at mass) have to pay in these booths and they get a receipt. And I was like: 1) wow, how much money does this place make in a day?; 2) wow, is this practice found in the Bible or what?; and 3) wow, does the receipt mean they pay taxes? I always thought religious institutions were tax exempt. On second thought, they do need lots of money to keep this enormous place up. Which got me wondering why they had to build it like this in the first place. I mean, when the miracle of the crying Virgin happened, did it mean she wanted a palace built for her? Well, she sure did attract the attention of millions of devotees. Nonetheless, I believe she and the founders of the shrine were at cross purposes.
We went up to pray some more, and explore the museum. It should have been a really solemn place and occasion except that one could hardly concentrate because there were literally thousands of people going about, taking photos, but mostly falling in line to see and ask for Mary’s intercession in whatever struggles they were going through at the moment. Again, it got me wondering if people came here to pray for their own interests only? Judging from the testimonials, it would appear so. But I sincerely hope not. I find it disturbing, despite my faith, that people reduce God, to rephrase John Green, as a “wish granting factory.”