Saturday, February 18, 2006

Contemplating in Child Jesus’ Country: Cebu City

Considered as the Philippines’ oldest Spanish permanent settlement, Cebu might just as well be called Santo Niño country. Nowhere in the entire archipelago can you find a place as devoted to the Child Jesus than the city. Central to this devotion is the original image of the Holy Child which is enshrined at the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño.

If I’m in town, I make it a point to pay homage to the miraculous icon inside the church, which is located just a few steps away from the kiosk housing the cross that Portuguese maritime explorer Ferdinand Magellan planted on the island in 1521. 

Whenever I go there to attend a mass, say a little prayer, light a candle, or contemplate on life, I have this awesome feeling of peace and serenity engulfing me. Truly, it must be the Santo Niño who’s at work on such occasions.

In the many times I’ve been to the Basilica, I always encountered a steady stream of devotees praying before the image that has shaped Cebu and the rest of the country’s history since Magellan came to Sugbu (Cebu's old name) almost 500 years ago. History has it that he gave the Santo Niño’s icon to the Sugbu king’s wife after her and her people’s baptism.

When Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi landed in the island more than 40 years later, he and his men found an image of the Santo Niño which is believed to be the one that Magellan gave to the chieftain’s wife. A church—the first one in the Philippines—was then ordered built on the very spot where the icon was discovered.

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On a recent visit, I came across an interesting back story about this centuries-old shrine whose rank was elevated to a Minor Basilica by Pope Paul VI. Still being run by the Augustinians, its original structure, which housed the image that the conquistador found, was gutted by fire. The same thing happened to the second one that was also burned down in 1628. It took a little over a century for the third structure to be completed, but this one stood the test of time and the elements, eventually becoming the renowned seat of widespread devotion to the Santo Niño.

Every third Sunday of January, thousands of devotees, not only from Cebu but from other parts of the country and the world, flock to the basilica to pay homage to the miraculous image of the Holy Child through Sinulog, Cebu’s biggest, grandest and world-renowned celebration. I haven’t been to the city during the festival day itself but I'm still hopeful I'll make it there one of these days. 

Just across the basilica, there's this sprawling, open-air theater type structure—the Pilgrim's Center—where Friday masses and other religious activities are held. As Santo Niño's devotees kept growing over the years and easily filled up the basilica beyond its capacity, the Augustinian authorities deemed it wise to put up the center to accommodate the growing number of worshippers.

Also, you’ll find hawker stalls outside the basilica selling all sorts of religious items—rosaries, icons, prayer books, candles, etc. Years ago, I bought a replica of the Santo Niño’s image in one of the stores there which now count among the many souvenirs that came from Cebu. Whenever I’m down and out, I just take a look at the statuette and say a little prayer that somehow eases whatever pain I have.
There’s another religious shrine in the city which I also had the chance to see on two separate occasions: the Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral. Located a block away from the Basilica, the church is the ecclesiastical seat of the metropolitan archdiocese of Cebu.

It took almost a century for this church to be completed due to numerous problems. Construction, which reportedly began in 1719, was suspended when funds were diverted to finance military campaigns against Moro raiders. Done in typical Baroque style just like many Spanish churches in the country, the church was finally completed in 1811 after so many delays.

Much of it, however, was destroyed by Allied bombings during World War II, with only its belfry, facade, and thick walls surviving the bombardment. In the 1950s, a massive reconstruction was relentlessly pursued to restore the cathedral into its former state. One time, I was tempted to take some snaps of its dazzling interior but a wedding ceremony was in progress, deterring me from doing so. 

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pic nameLike the many centuries-old shrines all over the Philippines, the churches in Cebu stand as tenacious and timeless landmarks of what can be considered as Spain’s greatest legacy to us: Christianity. 

Unfortunately, there are some people who argue that these religious edifices are nothing but symbols of the tyranny, oppression and injustice we experienced during the Spanish regime. I’d like to think though that without them we’d never get to know and understand Christ and his teachings, much less become the shining beacon of Christianity in this part of the world. :D

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