Pit Senyor! Viva Santo Niño! – A Filipino portrait of popular religiosity

By Fr. Eugenio, sx. –

It was on a Sunday, in January, a few years ago, Feast of Santo Niño – The Child Jesus -, at the Ina ng Laging Saklolo Chapel, in Sitio Militar, Q.C. Santo Niño[1] is one of the most popular and loved devotion in the Philippines. Many Overseas Filipino Workers, in fact, bring this and others devotions wherever they go. The Santo Niño is a favorite object of affection for many Filipinos and they adorn him like a child with clothes and gifts. Some put on his image garments or costumes according to their own need or in accordance to their own profession or state of life: a poor boy, a farmer, a basketball player, a businessman and so on. Hence the Santo Niño is one of the features of the humble Christ which the majority of Filipino feel identified with.

As it is used on this feast day, after the Mass some people bring to the altar their Santo Niño statue to be blessed. Among them two girls who manifestly hold their statue with great affection: in fact, they are embracing it. One must be already on her thirties, the other perhaps younger; their Santo Niño looks charming, like a little prince in formal red and green attire! To my leading question they tell me, close to tears, they will take it with them to Japan. Taon-taon they bring one Santo Niño, as a sign of protection, faith, trust and simplicity, endurance in the suffering, unity with their family, their country. In front of the little statue, they will light a candle, pray, and since it has been blessed they will touch and feel it.[2] Maybe in Japan, eventually, they will give the statue to somebody else, some friend or family… Perhaps, it could be even a “panata”, (a vow, a promise) usually made in exchange for some favor – a cure for an illness in the family, a break from the spell of an imagined curse or a thanksgiving for being back home safe and sound, etc…

Filipino Sociologist Randy David, writing about Filipino Piety, noticed that often the most ardent prayers are requests for miracles rather than quiet conversations with a God people seek to understand. Some others show their appreciation for good fortune by acts of sacrifice, but their piety tends to be seasonal rather than sustained, remaining under the spell of religion as a narcotic action (e.g. those who, every year in the Holy Week,  have themselves nailed on a cross, or the young flagellants who offer their bloodied bodies as token of sacrifice…)

So long as religion is turned into something like this, so long will it hide from people the real causes of their misfortunes. Little understanding of the concrete world in which people live is demanded because many think the events that affect them are willed by magical forces that have to be appeased if they are to live tolerable lives: “We continue to inhabit an enchanted fearsome world in which our best tools are not our minds and our industry but the power of amulets and incantations. Our manner of worship hasn’t changed much from the animism of our ancestors. We still cajole and ingratiate ourselves to a variety of saints and capricious spirits in the hope of making the world a bit more manageable. In many ways, our religious life is cut from the same fabric as our political life.” (Randy David, March 31, 2002, Philippine Daily Inquirer)

On the other hand, I have come to realize, by studies and by concrete experience, that Filipino people have inherited from their ancestors a rich spirituality. It is a product of a long history as a people, starting long before the Spanish missionaries arrived in this country. As the Filipino Bishops would say: “Our native spirit and the foreign religious way of life co-exist now in our consciousness as Christian faithful…In fact our spirituality is not comparable to that of other Christians in Asia, because, unlike them, we are a vast majority in our country… Our Christian faith is like a plant from a foreign land that grew in our own soil as a huge tree. The roots have penetrated deeply in our native soil, and in the soil of our souls. The fruit has grown and borne fruit…” (CBCP, Filipino way to Holiness, 12, July 1999) so that it can be affirmed that, although Christianity was not originally native to the Filipino, it is foreign no longer.

Yet, here are the two women, with their Santo Niño, going back to Japan to work as entertainers or/and P.R.O. I have to say that their faith (which I don’t want to judge) in Santo Niño expresses very well the “weak”, “limited”, “oppressive”, “humble”, “poor-mentality” aspect that easily makes Filipino people accept suffering and injustice as a kind of kapalaran (fate, destiny) written in the palm of their hands. Filipinos never lack reasons for sufferings. Aside from several natural calamities, they are affected also by the suffering they experience from the political, social and economic system that continues to cause the dehumanizing poverty of the majority of the people. “Pagsubok lang father” meaning: it’s just a trial Father! It is God’s testing them daw. And Santo Niño is playing a formidable role in making them resilient or patient in suffering, and –eventually- to come out as winners!

Although the Gospels prove that poverty and destitution are not separate from our search for the richness of the Kingdom of God, Jesus’ message doesn’t agree with the idea of embracing suffering for its own sake. Perhaps Filipinos need to have this Good News announced more meaningfully and more often. “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it…. Then he embraced the children and blessed them, placing his hands on them” (Mark 10:13-16).

Being embraced like a child is so comforting that it is easy enough to be childlike and entrust ourselves in Jesus’ care. And I come to understand that, just as a shepherd takes the ewe in his arms, eventually it is Santo Niño who holds and embraces these two women close and bless them. That must be their way of experiencing a loving and caring God who gives them back the dignity, the honor, as truly children of His. That’s why they will take Santo Niño, their charming little prince, with them to Japan. More than enough to face whatever life will bring about.

Pit Senyor! Viva Santo Niño! Happy feast of Santo Niño to everybody!

[1] Señor Santo Niño is the exact term used by the people when referring to the Holy Child. “A month after the first Spanish voyage arrived in the islands, 1565, Magellan paid homage to the chief of Cebu, Saripada Humabon. Eventually, Magellan and the missionaries were able to convince Humabon and his wife as well as 400 Cebuanos to be baptized. Historians believe that the Santo Niño image venerated in Cebu today is Magellan’s gift to the sultana of Cebu” (Jose S. Arcilla, An introduction to Philippine History, Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1988, 1-3)

[2] Somebody would claim that “this is an inappropriate behaviour associated with the pagan worship of gods. But such is the Western view. Filipinos, however, believe there is a real presence of the holy in the object. Somehow, they believe that the touch of the “holy” is the touch of God, the “Holy”. And as a matter of fact, it is not only the picture or statue that they touch – they also want to touch holy persons. Actually, this is not different from the experience of the woman with the hemorrhage who exerted effort just to touch the cloak of Jesus: << If I could only touch the fringe of his cloak, I know that I shall be healed>> (Lk 8:43-48)”  (CBCP, Filipino way to Holiness, Pastoral Letter on Filipino Spirituality, 1999)



  1. I am a Cebuano. I was born during the feast of the Sinulog! Pit Senyor! Viva Sto. Nino.
    Popular religiosity and piety and devotions made the Church of the Phillipines continue to exist and to grow for almost 500 centuries already. this is inculturation of the Gospel of Christ in Phillippine soil.

  2. Pingback: On Poverties: Morality, Economy and Religious Popularity | Kant's Symptom

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