The Visita Iglesia: The Practice
In the country where the dominant religion is Roman Catholicism, the Season of Lent and the Holy Week are marked by colorful liturgical celebrations and popular Filipino devotions. For Filipino Catholics, the Lenten Season starts on Ash Wednesday, while the Holy Week starts at Palm Sunday and ends at Easter Sunday, a slight deviation from the liturgical canon (The Holy week should start from the evening of Saturday before Palm Sunday until Holy Thursday before sunset). Among many popular Filipino Holy Week devotions are the usage of blessed Palm Fronds at Palm Sunday to seemingly send off bad luck and evil spirits, the Pabasa or reading of the Passion of Christ (a 200-paged book containing lyrics narrating the whole salvation history), the Visita Iglesia or church-to-church trip to pray the Way of the Cross, the Senakulo or theatrical play of the salvation history, the Last Supper Mass at Maundy Thursday, the Veneration of the Cross at Good Friday, the long procession for the interred Christ, the Easter Vigil Mass (Saturday night), and the Salubong or meet-up of two images (Christ and Mary) at the dawn of Easter Sunday. All of these, plus few other activities depending on the local community, make up the liturgical life of Filipinos during the Holy Week, where penance and reconciliation with the Lord are deemed necessary.
Initially, Visita Iglesia is the practice of visiting at least seven (7) churches on Maundy Thursday to honor the Blessed Sacrament, which Jesus Christ has instituted (Sacrament of Eucharist). But the practice evolved through time. The day of the visit is no longer limited to Maundy Thursday alone, but to anytime during the lenten season until black Saturday. The visits have become more than an spiritual endeavor (of meditation and pilgrimage). It has become a touristic activity, promoting the old churches in the country.
Spiritual and Museum Experience of the Visita Iglesia
The Visita Iglesia, with its contemplative nature, is similar to a museum exhibition. There are objects (churches) in display and ready for the viewers to be experienced aesthetically or spiritually. Each of these object-churches narrates the (his)stories of their communities and of their people. These his-stories can then be read by the viewers-pilgrims in many forms (i.e. didactics, oral, written). The viewers-pilgrims can weave their own grand narrative of stories through self-guidance and DIY itineraries. The itineraries, or order of the visits, provide for the self-directed aesthetic experience preceding the deeper spiritual journey. Some artistic exhibitions work similarly: self-directed, contemplative, and “pilgrimage”-like.
For the first time, I did my own walking Visita Iglesia within the central district of Manila, the beacon of the Catholicism in the Spanish colonial period. As being a devout Catholic and with my personal interest in Church art, I took the visita iglesia as both a pilgrimage and curatorial (museum-like) experience.
The Visita started at the (1) Sto. Domingo Church (National Shrine of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary of La Naval de Manila) along Quezon Avenue. This ecclesiastical complex is established by the Dominicans in the early 1500’s. This church is a treasure-vault on its own. It has murals made by National Artists Botong Francisco and stain-glass windows made by Modernist Galo Ocampo.
I hailed a jeepney and went westward to the University of Santo Tomas (UST) where another parish dedicated to the Our Lady of Most Holy Rosary is located. Inside UST, one can find the (2) Santissimo Rosario Parish. Across the main gate of UST, one can find an alley towards Loyola Street. Along Loyola, there is a small alley which leads towards the Sampaloc Public Market, where the twin Churches of Sampaloc, the (3) Our Lady of Loreto Parish, and the (4) Saint Anthony Shrine are located.
I walked few meters towards Legarda and find the (5) San Sebastian Church (Our Lady of Mt. Carmel).
I came back to Mendiola and walked to the (6) National Shrine of St. Jude Thaddeus.
I rode a jeepney towards SM Manila, and waited for bus that goes to Pandacan. I dropped by the (7) Santo Nino Church.
I rode a tricycle to Pedro Gil street and had transferred to another jeepney going to Sta. Ana to find the (8) Sta. Ana Church (Our Lady of the Abandoned).
Then, a jeepney-ride back can bring one to the (9) Ermita Church (Nuestra Seniora de Guia), Another jeepney ride, southbound, to my final church, which is the (10) Malate Church (Our Lady of Remedies).
The Visita Iglesia is more than a “field trip” for the believers. The aesthetic appreciation of the church facade, interiors, retablos and treasures should aid the devotees to a deeper relationship with the Lord. The liturgical arts and space are there to facilitate prayer and devotion. The focus must not be on the destination but on how does the journey transform devotees to a better Christian person.