One of the many things Filipinos inherited from 400 years of being a Spanish colony was the plethora of Catholic traditions surrounding Lent and Holy Week. I was first exposed to the tradition of Visita Iglesia in Mexico, and found the concept of visiting seven churches on Maundy Thursday evening rather tedious. My parents stood their ground, and we made our rounds whenever possible. We were never the type of the family that went on holiday over during Easter, as my father found the idea sacrilegious. Lent is a time of sacrifice, and our place to be during Holy Week was in church.
Over the years, the habit of visiting seven churches grew on me, and during my college years it actually became more fun. Here in the Philippines you will find many youth groups doing the rounds together, although it is predominantly families that visit and pray together. Each family has its preferred route, and it took us several years to refine one that didn’t have us criss-crossing around town. There are those who do the way of the cross, and visit 14 churches, and on foot! In countries wehre Catholicism is the predominant religion, finding that amount of churches in one area or even one city is absolutely no problem. In Manila you’ll even have several dozen churches left over!
While living in India, I insisted on upholding the tradition, and soon discovered that doing the Visita Iglesia in Delhi was not a problem either. It may not have been as easy as Manila with all the churches to spare, but coming up with seven Catholic Churches with the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament was eminently doable, especially when the family driver was not Catholic and had no qualms about working overtime.
Where I did have a devil of a time, pardon the pun, was doing Visita Iglesia in Germany. If you are based in a village, there will only be one church, and it may not even necessarily be Catholic. So doing the Visita in the countryside requires a car and impeccable timing. Since the tradition is not known in Germany, the village church will close an hour after the Holy Thursday mass and that’s it, unlike Delhi and Manila, where Catholic traditions spell that the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament is until midnight.
Bangkok was not easy either. Unless you are a practitioner of inter-religious dialogue and are open to the idea of substituting a few Buddhist temples to complete the magic seven circle it is tough. There is the Buddhist equivalent of a nine temple circuit, whose goal is to earn merit, which can be quite charming if you do it in places like Amphawa because the mode of transportation is boat.
In view of the fact that I will not be in Manila over Easter, I decided to do my Visita Iglesia early this year. Holy Thursday is still weeks away, but it is Lent already, so in my book it is good enough. My adventure actually started with a harmless visit to Antipolo to the Church of Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage. I haven’t been there in decades and decided it was high time to revisit and looked forward to some quiet prayer time. Much to my dismay there was a graduation practice going on and the church was a circus. My cat, Champagne, found all this fascinating though, and stared wide-eyed at all the people without ever losing her cool, calm and collected nature. I did discover the grotto on the side of the church where I dutifully lit my candles, before walking over to the Adoration Chapel for the real quiet time and offering my petitions.
From Antipolo I moved to Makati, and landed in the Peter and Paul Church in the Burgos area. This was another church I hadn’t seen in ages and was thrilled to step in after more than 30 years. Mass was going on and we arrived during the Offertory and stayed until the end. Again, Champagne was fascinated. She sat up when everyone stood, flopped down politely with paws in front when people knelt, and kept perfectly quiet, not even a sneeze.
Next stop was Saint Andrew The Apostle Church in Bel-Air, Makati. Wow, I remember attending a wedding here several decades ago and had completely forgotten about it. What a joy to revisit and note all the changes that have taken place over the years! Once again we caught an on-going mass, coincidentally also entering during the offertory. Champagne observed all this in silence, and almost seemed embarrassed at tinkling her bell when she moved. We didn’t stay for the whole mass though.
By the time I reached my old parish of St. Alphonsus Mary de Liguouris (Manila traffic is always a deterrent), the main church was already closed, but the Adoration Chapel was open and this gave me the opportunity to re-visit what to me is the most beautiful Way of The Cross in the entire Metro Manila. It is like walking through an open air gallery rather than an ordinary church garden. Each station is marked by a unique work of art created by a local artist. You can spend hours there, admiring the pieces or praying, or both.
Since it is not Holy Thursday, most of the churches closed by 8:30pm unless there is an Adoration Chapel open 24 hours or at least until midnight. Hunger and exhaustion got the better of us and we decided to break the Visita Iglesia and continue another day.
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