Inclusion, not exclusion

Pope Francis has brought inclusiveness, among other things, to the Church, literally opening its doors to those it has long excluded—the lowly and the lapsed, as well as those with nonconformist lifestyles. He has brought about this great change both in word and deed, and called on the faithful to redirect their emphasis from the pompous to the practical, from indulgence to action.

This stance is central to Francis’ vision of a Church that matters and cares: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.”

On our shores, a meaningful change has occurred in the yearly Feast of Our Lady of Peñafrancia, with Nueva Caceres Archbishop Rolando Tria Tirona ending the tradition of “elite” members of the community

exclusively accompanying the venerated image fondly called “Ina” on the pagoda boat during the fluvial procession.

The nine-day feast, held this year on Sept. 12-20, is over 300 years old and was estimated to have drawn over two million pilgrims to Naga City. As in the yearly feast honoring the Black Nazarene of Quiapo, a heaving sea of Peñafrancia devotees (notably male, barefoot, in various stages of intoxication) transports the image of the patroness of the Bicol region from its shrine at the Basilica Minore to the Naga Metropolitan Cathedral three kilometers away. The culminating event of the feast is the fluvial parade, in which the image is borne on a pagoda boat through the Naga River back to the basilica.

Part of the tradition of the feast was the selection of 200 members of the elite who would accompany the image on the pagoda boat. It is not clear just when this practice of limiting the privilege to the prominent and powerful—including politicians, priests, businessmen and celebrities—began. But, with Francis showing the way, the Bicol clergy led by Tirona decided that ordinary folk would now share the privilege of escorting Ina on the boat.

Thus, Tirona called on each diocese and archdiocese in the region to send its representatives. Thus, on Sept 20 fishermen and farmers experienced the honor from which they had long been excluded. Farmer Primo Velasco traveled all the way from Polangui in Albay to take part in the fluvial parade. “Now that I am honored to be on Ina’s pagoda boat, I think this is a sure sign that I was right in choosing to live a God-centered life,” he told Inquirer Southern Luzon.

This change is significant as it involves one of the country’s most important religious feasts. The shift actually began last year, when social workers and volunteers were the chosen passengers instead of the same prominent people who had enjoyed the privilege yearly. It also comes in a time of flux for the Peñafrancia organizers, who have observed a notable increase in the number of youth participants, as well as the “traditional” state of drunkenness of the “voyadores.” (A liquor ban is thought to change that for good.)

There’s much to be said for breaking tradition in favor of what makes sense, or in keeping with the Church’s more open embrace. Tirona, who was assigned to minister to the 1.8 million Catholics in Camarines Sur only in 2012, had given the Peñafrancia devotees a simple message: “I came from a small diocese. I am new here. Let’s make a fresh start and let’s change things.”

It’s a message after Pope Francis’ own heart, and particularly resonant as the Philippines prepares for the his visit in January. Manila Archbishop Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle has reminded the faithful that the visit should be the impetus for great change in the lives of Filipinos: “…[W]e must prepare the nation to receive the Holy Father by setting our minds and hearts in communion with our dear Pope Francis, the messenger of peace [and] love and the apostle of the poor.”

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