Every devotee to the Santo Niño has a Santo Niño story to share. It is this story together with one’s simple faith that keep a devotee in coming to Cebu to say and dance a prayer in Sinulog. It could be a story on how a person was healed through the Santo Niño. Or this story could be how a person’s wish was granted through his prayers. Like the other million devotees who flock to Cebu on the feast of the Santo Niño, I have also my own Santo Niño story. This story is about my calling to the Augustinian life and priesthood.
I consider my calling to the Augustinian life and the priesthood as my Santo Niño story. It is because I believe my Augustinian priestly vocation is a miracle of the Santo Niño in my life. When I was in my elementary years, I dreamed of the Santo Niño. I saw Him in my dream and He said these words to me, “Serve the Lord.” I didn’t give much attention to it during that time for it was only a dream. Besides, I was aware that there were many ways of serving the Lord aside from the priesthood. Although I must admit that it also came to my mind that perhaps the Santo Niño was calling me to become a priest through that dream. I was already an altar boy during that time and also thought of the possibility of becoming a priest one day. However, this thought of becoming a priest was put aside when I started my high school life. I became preoccupied with my rock band, friends and the struggles of making ends meet in my studies. When I reached third year high school, I attempted to become a soldier. I was not accepted because I was still under the required age. During my fourth year, a number of seminarians from different congregations visited us and invited us to join them after high school. Out of curiosity, I took all the entrance exams given by these different congregations and I passed in their exams. I really did not immediately decide to enter the seminary because the thought of becoming a priest was not that strong during that time. My decision to join the Augustinians came when I shared with a priest my dream about the Santo Niño. Without hesitation, he told me, “You will be an Augustinian. The Augustinians are the caretakers of the original image of the Santo Niño.” This sounded very imposing on me. Yet, I tried to discern if this was really for me. So I went to Cebu to join the search-in program facilitated by the Augustinian Vocation Promoters. I was so touched when I arrived at the Basilica del Santo Niño for the search-in. There I saw the original image of the Santo Niño who once told me in a dream, “Serve the Lord.” My feelings of joy were overwhelming for at last I am in the holy ground of the birth of this devotion in the Philippines. This is the devotion which I grew up with in Surigao. And now without expecting it, I am already in His sanctuary. The hospitality and friendliness of the friars who welcomed me made me at home at the Basilica where I stayed for three days. During my stay, I met new friends who became my companions in the seminary. That memorable moment became the start of my adventure in the Augustinian way of life. With God’s grace, I received the gift of Solemn Profession and received the immense gift of the priesthood in the Order of St. Augustine.
Now, I can’t believe that I am already ten years in ministry as an Augustinian priest! Looking back at my life as a priest and an Augustinian religious, I can say that I am happy serving the Lord in this way of life in spite of the many challenges in my journey. The habit that I received and the ordination bestowed on me did not take away the reality that I am sinful and weak. I am so blessed that God sent me people to accompany me along the way especially during times of difficulties. At difficult times, I had doubts if I was really called for the priesthood. One time, I lifted all these difficulties in prayer. After a while in that prayer, I couldn’t help but shed tears. These tears did not flow from my eyes because I got an explanation why I became a priest. While asking God in tears and bended knees on what am I supposed to do, I was just reminded of my dream of the Santo Niño telling me “serve the Lord” and my response to serve Him in the priesthood during my ordination.
This is my Santo Niño story that I continue to cherish and give thanks especially when His feast day comes. I am sure you also have your own wonderful stories with the Christ Child. I hope you can also share them too. Thank you!
As the Philippine Church prepares herself for the celebration of five hundred years of Christianity, it is but fitting at this time to reflect on the relationship between the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu and the faith of the Filipinos. Benedict XVI remarked in his Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei, “There is a need to rediscover the journey of faith so as to shed ever clearer light on the joy and renewed enthusiasm of the encounter with Christ.” For us Filipinos, this is a call for us to intensify the call of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II) towards maturity of faith among Filipino Catholics. This greatly involves looking back to the beginning of our “journey of faith” as a Christian country and as PCP II believes, there is a need for Church teachings to take root into the soil of our Filipino being so that we may truly believe and love as Filipinos.
This article attempts to show that the Santo Niño de Cebu is an image that holds great significance in our journey of faith and in the expression of our faith and love as Filipinos.
Santo Niño de Cebu and the Dawn of Faith
The arrival of the image of Santo Niño in 1521 is intimately connected with the birth of Christianity in the Philippines. Through the image of the Holy Child, our forbears were introduced to the God of Christianity who became a child because of His immense love for us. His beauty and majesty in the image of the Holy Child moved the heart of the queen of Cebu to embrace Christianity. As a translation of Pigafetta’s chronicle says, “She was shown an image of our Lady, a very beautiful wooden Child Jesus, and a Cross. Thereupon, she was overcome with contrition and asked for baptism amid her tears…(later)…she asked to give her the little Child Jesus to keep in place of her idols and she went away.” From this “first spiritual miracle of the Holy Infant,” the seed of devotion that was planted continued to spread into the soil of the hearts and minds of every Filipino even after the Spaniards left the islands. This was attested by the fact that when the Spaniards came back to our islands, one of the soldiers of Legazpi discovered the Santo Niño in good condition in a box. The image was dressed in native style and with a native necklace with a small cross attached. Although the original clothes and the cross on the tip of the globe were missing, the red velvet Flemish bonnet was still intact. In a letter to King Philip II, Legazpi wrote that the image was well kept in that house there were many flowers before the image when they found it. Later on this site, a church was built which would become the “Mother of all churches in the Philippines”- the Basilica del Santo Niño de Cebu. Through the centuries, Filipinos from all walks of life continue to kiss the image, sing and dance their faith to God who was made flesh as a child in the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu.
Santo Niño de Cebu and the Filipino Way of Professing the Faith
Each culture and people has its own way of professing their faith. This is because Christ is present in every place and culture as it is true that everything is created through Him. (Jn 1:1) In other words, contextual realities such as the people, their culture, religion, history and struggle do not just serve as the background in doing theology. Rather, “contextual realities are considered resources of theology together with the Christian sources of Scripture and Tradition.” In our context as Filipinos, our image of the Santo Niño, the stories that we have about the image and the rituals and dances that we have before the image are true expressions of our faith as Filipinos.
The Power of the Image of the Santo Niño de Cebu
The image of the Santo Niño plays a vital role in the expression of the faith of the Filipinos. Unlike Westerners who employ a predominantly rational approach to God, Easterners, employ the experiential and the holistic approach. Through the image of Santo Niño, Filipinos express what they believe and feel and move them forward to dimensions of consciousness not directly accessible to discursive thought. This image allows the Filipino devotees to experience the presence of divine reality which surpasses articulation. This experience with the divine is supported by the many inexplicable cures and miraculous favors that have been gained by the people through the image of Santo Niño. When one is aware of this reason, it would not be a surprise for one to witness devotees cuing from morning till evening just to be able to touch and even kiss the image of the Holy Child. Scriptures also attest that material objects can also become channels of God’s grace. Among these is the experience of the woman with the hemorrhage who exerted effort just to touch the hem of 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) It is not necessarily true that devotees adore the image of Santo Niño for its own sake. This can be seen in the attitude of the devotees towards the images of Santo Niño that they also have in the altars of their homes and the images of Santo Niño that depict the profession of the caretaker of the image. They do not care much of the physical appearance of the image more to the God represented in the image. Devotees are drawn to the Santo Niño because for them this image makes sense in revealing who God really is. The God who became a child in the image of the Sto. Nino is the real object of the devotion. The Church does not teach that the image of Sto. Nino contains power. Nevertheless, this image is only a representation of the source of power who is no other than God.
Stories of Miracles of the Santo Niño de Cebu
There are many myths and miracle stories about the image of Santo Niño de Cebu. Even before the discovery of Legazpi’s soldiers, the image had already been associated with many myths and miracles. These stories concern about health restored after illness, easy delivery in childbirth, defense against an impending attack by invaders, protection from fire and disease, rain and a good harvest after a long drought. These stories may appear unimportant to a mind trained in precision and logic. But, for the Asian mind particularly Filipinos, these myths and miracle stories are resources from which the content of faith and the meaning of human existence can be vividly expressed. The Asian Bishops affirm this truth in these words, : “Mythology expresses the content of faith, and the meaning of human existence and the Transcendent in a verbal and descriptive way, in the form of a narrative that is often dramatic, tangible and vivid.” Reading and listening to these stories of the Santo Niño may at times funny and unbelievable. Yet, they seriously express the people’s faith that the Santo Niño is their Great Benefactor and Protector. This faith brings us back to the Jesus of the gospels who feed his hungry flock in the multiplication of loaves and the Jesus who wants his people to be saved.
Sinulog and other Rituals with the Santo Niño de Cebu
The Filipino expression of faith through the devotion to the Santo Niño is also shown in sinulog (ritual dance) and other rituals such as the weekly novena, pamisa (mass offerings), pagdagkut ug kandila (lighting of candles), hubo (dressing and undressing of the Santo Niño) and the religious processions. Through these rituals, devotees experience and communicate the Sacred beyond words and propositions. In other words, the Filipinos consider dancing and these rituals as expressions of prayer. These bodily prayers are performed to express praise and thanksgiving for the many favors received. These are not something new for Filipinos. It is because historians believe that even before the Spaniards came, our forbears already danced and performed rituals to the deities. The pioneering missionaries only changed the reason behind such performance from worshiping the anitos to the proclamation of God’s lordship over all creation. Knowing the ritual dancing and other rituals, we are reminded of the Jews in the Scriptures who also danced and sing in praise of God. 2 Samuel 6:14 mentions the Jews in huge procession singing and dancing with David, the anointed of God. Furthermore, it makes us at peace to dance our prayers and perform our rituals knowing that Liturgy acknowledges the possibility of integrating in the official worship anything in the people’s way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error.
Towards our Five Hundredth
The Santo Niño de Cebu is truly a Filipino expression of our Christian faith. It is an image which had been a witness to the start of our forbears’ journey of faith and an image through which we articulate our faith in ways that are beyond words and propositions. It is true that there are things that need to be purified in the practice of these devotions which are contrary to the teachings of our faith. Let these be seen not as things that would lessen our devotion to the Santo Niño. Rather, let these be seen to be a reminder that we are still in the journey towards maturity of our faith. Thus, let these weaknesses be opportunities for church leaders and the faithful to reflect more our identity as Filipinos and our Filipino way of professing the Christian faith. By doing this through the guidance of our patron and King, Santo Niño, we will have a more mature faith and a faith that we can call truly Filipino as we approach our five hundred years as a Christian nation.
If you could ever keep something for five centuries, that thing must be very precious and beautiful!
We Filipinos are so blessed that we have kept something very precious and beautiful for almost five centuries now.
And that is our faith and devotion to the Santo Niño de Cebu.
We Filipinos are lovers of beauty. This love for beauty is evident in how we express our faith. The perceptual features of colorful images, vibrant songs, graceful dances, moving dramas, and inspiring prose among others in our devotions do not only give delight to our senses but also bring us closer to the Divine. These features enable us to know, see, hear, feel, and touch our God who is no other than Beauty Himself. As St. Augustine would say, “Late have I loved you, Oh Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you.” Our God is not an abstract God. Our God is alive in the dances, processions, dramas, images and the different experiences in our lives. Indeed, God is an “Emmanuel.” The devotion to the Santo Niño de Cebu manifests this captivating beauty loved by Filipinos.
The year 2021 will be a big year for the Catholic Church in the Philippines and the Augustinians. The Philippine Church will celebrate its 500th Anniversary of Christianization and the Augustinian friars who are the caretakers of the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu will also be celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the Arrival of the Santo Niño. This blog is humbly dedicated to these big celebrations in the Philippine Church. I have entitled this blog as The Beauty of the Santo Niño de Cebu because I believe it is the Beauty of the Santo Nino which captured the hearts of the Filipinos for almost five centuries.
This beauty of the Santo Niño is intimately connected with the dawn of Christian faith in the Philippines. It was instrumental in the baptism of our forefathers to Christianity 500 years ago. The chronicler Pigafetta of the Magellan expedition in 1521 recorded that during the baptism of Queen Juana, she was moved to tears and conversion through the image of the Santo Niño. He wrote, “While the chaplain was getting ready for the ceremony, I showed her an image of Our Lady, a small statue of the Child Jesus and a cross. Upon seeing them, she was moved and, with tears in her eyes, she asked to be baptized…The Queen asked me to give her the statue of the Holy Child to replace her idols, and I gave it to her.” This beauty that captured the heart of Queen Juana and our forefathers continues to capture the hearts of people from different walks of life today. No wonder devotees call the Santo Niño as Bato Balani sa Gugma or Magnet of Love. It inspires them to become better persons and Christians. For some, it gives them strength to face the many challenges of life.
This captivating beauty is manifested in many ways in the devotions to the Santo Niño. The image, prayers, songs, dances, processions, gestures and other religious practices are rich resources of understanding our God and Filipino culture. Through these devotions the faithful concretely express their faith and also their identity as Filipino Catholics. Thousands of devotees and tourists from around the world flock to Cebu City and its neighboring islands during the feast of the Santo Niño every month of January to witness this showcase of faith and Filipino culture.
I would like to understand more the meaning of these devotions that we have been practicing for five centuries.
Why do I dance in my prayer during the Sinulog?
Why do I wipe and kiss the image of the Santo Niño?
Why do I shout Pit Señor?
These are just some of the things that I would like to understand more. I believe that understanding these devotions can greatly help in my identity as a Catholic and also as a Filipino. With understanding, I can appreciate them well and also enable others to appreciate these different expressions of our faith. I can also strengthen my Catholic Faith in understanding these devotions because I can say that these are Filipino practices that are in accordance to Sacred Scriptures, Church Tradition and Magisterium. In addition, with understanding, I can also be critical to my devotions in assuring that a one sided view of Christ can be avoided and that the demands of responsible discipleship will not be neglected.
This is the reason why I set up this blog and entitled it as the TheBeauty of Santo Niño de Cebu. I want to share and explore the beauty of the Santo Niño which the Filipinos have kept in their hearts for almost 500 years and counting. May this blog be my humble offering to the 500th Anniversary of Christianization and Arrival of the Santo Niño in the Philippines.
Viva Pit Señor!
If there are things that interests you about the Santo Niño or things that you would like to understand more about the devotion, I would appreciate if you could share them in the comments below. Thank you!