CEBU CITY—One of the most endearing and enduring Lenten practices of Roman Catholic Cebuanos is the annual visit to different churches within the city and province on the evening of Holy Thursday.
Visita de las Iglesias (Visit to Churches) or the shorter form, Visita Iglesia, is a pious devotion of families, religious organizations, or simply a group of like-minded individuals, expressed by “watching one hour” with Jesus the Blessed Sacrament in response to His challenge to His sleepy apostles in Gethsemane, “Could you not stay awake with me for even an hour?” (Mt 26:40)
Thus, in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in the afternoon of Holy Thursday, after the Blessed Sacrament has been transferred to the Altar of Repose, the Visita Iglesia officially begins, to last until midnight when the churches close for the night.
Before and beyond this period, it can no longer be considered Visita Iglesia, strictly speaking. But the faithful who wish to cover more churches can do so, starting in the early afternoon until midnight of Holy Thursday.
Inside the church, the focus of attention is not the main altar but the Altar of Repose, also called monumento (monument), an elaborately and richly decorated place on either side of the church that has the Blessed Sacrament, exposed or hidden in a small tabernacle.
Parish organizations take turns in spending an hour of hymns, prayers and meditation before the Blessed Sacrament, while pilgrims pray silently for 10 or 15 minutes, then move on to the next church.
Not fewer than 5
There is no rule as to the number of churches pilgrims should visit. But tradition has it that it should not be fewer than five, to honor the five letters of the name of Jesus, or the Five Precious Wounds.
Seven is another favorite number to honor the Seven Sacraments instituted by Christ. Some devotees go as high as 14 to commemorate the 14 Stations of the Cross.
When the family or group gathers before the Altar of Repose, a minute of silence is observed then the leader begins to lead the prayer the group has prepared for each visit.
Due to the proximity of churches in Cebu City, it is not unusual to see a penitential procession of people moving from one church to another, saying the rosary along the way. This group is preceded by a processional cross and two lighted candles.
The participants may walk barefoot and carry lighted candles as they move from one place to another.
Depending on the number of churches the group has decided to visit, the penitential visit may last from four to six hours.
But the greater majority of devotees, especially those with the young and old members of the family in tow, take a vehicle, usually a van.
Here are the top station churches that urban Cebuanos pick for their annual Visita Iglesia:
Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral
The Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral has the most impressive façade among all the baroque churches in Cebu. Despite having undergone so many repairs in the past, the imposing façade of the cathedral never fails to impress anyone. At night, the whole place is beautifully lighted and the trees in its patio are also tastefully decorated with lighted capiz lanterns.
The gilded retable, although new, blended well with the baroque architecture of the exterior. In the central nich of the main retable is a 1.8-meter image of Christ Crucified, flanked by the two Filipino saints, San Lorenzo Ruiz and the newly canonized San Pedro Calungsod, who is from the Archdiocese of Cebu.
Being the mother church of the archdiocese, and being the most centrally located on Mabini Street in downtown Cebu City, the cathedral is always the choice for either the first or the last visit of pilgrims on Holy Thursday.
Basilica del Sto. Niño de Cebu
Also known as San Agustin Church, the Basilica del Sto. Niño is just a block away from the cathedral. Built in 1732, this baroque church is the shrine of the Sto. Niño de Cebu. Both the exteriors and interior have retained much of the original structure built almost 300 years ago. The main retable has 15 niches containing various Augustinian saints.
The basilica is the center of intense Filipino devotion on Fridays, when hourly novena Masses, from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. are said alternately in English and Cebuano, in honor of the Holy Child Jesus of Cebu, whose image was given by Ferdinand Magellan to Cebu’s Queen Humaymay on April 14, 1521.
The image, standing only 33 centimeters tall, is placed atop an elaborately decorated silver base and is richly robed in velvet embroidered with gold thread. It wears a gold crown given by Pope Paul VI on the occasion of the 4th Centennial of Christianity celebration in 1965, which was held in Cebu City. The image is exposed for public viewing in the left templette inside the basilica.
Our Lady of Carmel
Four blocks away from the basilica is another church, dedicated to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. It is right beside the University of San Jose-Recoletos, on Magallanes and Leon Kilat streets in downtown Cebu City. It is probably the only church in the Philippines that is located entirely on the second floor of a building. The spacious and airy Recollect Fathers’ church is a replacement of an old edifice that was torn down in 1960 to accommodate the growing number of Catholics in the area.
The church became a parish church only in 1965. Originally dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, it was rededicated to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, a Marian devotion that the Recollect Fathers introduced in the country in 1619.
Moving uptown from the Recoletos Church, the next stop would be Cebu’s “busiest” church, the Sto. Rosario Parish Church, on P. del Rosario St., beside the University of San Carlos. The church offers 15 Masses daily from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The church’s original mission-type structure, built in 1933, was demolished in the 1970s to give way to a huge modern structure.
In the sanctuary of the church is a modern statue of the Crucified Christ, surrounded by the Blessed Virgin Mary and other saints rendered in stained glass.
Archdiocesan Shrine of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
This modern and fully air-conditioned Chinese parish is run by the Jesuits. It is located on D. Jakosalem St., and is only about five minutes by car and 15 minutes by foot from Sto. Rosario.
In the sanctuary is enshrined a large image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus done in modern sculpture. It used to be in monochromatic white but was recently polychromed and enhanced with golden rays. Atop the sanctuary is a beautiful stained glass wall of God the Father and the Holy Spirit surrounded by angels.
The altars of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph are located on the right and left sides of the sanctuary. The images of Mary and Joseph are identical in style to the one in the sanctuary, but are in monochromatic white. On the right side is a corridor of the saints where the traditional sculpture of holy images are enshrined.
Home to the Wednesday devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help, this church has a Romanesque architecture and airy atmosphere. Built in 1950, this church is run by the Redemptorist Fathers. It is parish church to old Hispanic Cebuano families.
In the sanctuary is the framed image of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, done in high relief, carried by two life-size angels, under a semicircular concrete canopy supported by Romanesque columns.
The church is located on Aboitiz Road, parallel to Gen. Maxilom Avenue in uptown Cebu beside St. Theresa’s College.
Our Lady of the Sacred Heart
Although small, this very homey and airy church is another Cebuano favorite. Located on N. Escario St., a few blocks from the Cebu Provincial Capitol Building.
The church is dedicated to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart with St. Martin de Porres as its secondary patron. Although very contemporary outside and inside, this church offers a Tridentine Mass (pre-Vatican II Mass, said in Latin with the priest facing the altar instead of the congregation) once a month.
This 1949 cloister in Barangay Mabolo in Cebu City has become a center of Marian devotion for the Cebuanos, especially since former President Cory Aquino sought refuge here during the Edsa Revolution of 1986.
Despite the small space, people still flock to this convent, especially on Saturdays to write their petitions, which the cloistered Carmelite nuns read at prayer time.
Officially called Carmel of the Holy Child Jesus, the convent is the shrine to a life-size replica of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel found in the Carmel convent in Israel. The replica is said to be the only one in the Philippines.
St. Joseph’s Shrine
In nearby Mandaue City is the National Shrine to the Foster Father of Jesus Christ, as declared by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. It was the first parish church in the Philippines dedicated to St. Joseph (1600). But the only remnants left of its original baroque structure are the meter-thick side walls made of coral stones. Its façade and interiors have been fully refurbished.
The object of devotion here is the early 17th century original Filipino baroque image of St. Joseph and the Child Jesus, the oldest extant image of St. Joseph in the Philippines.
Noted Jesuit historian Rene Javellana attributes making of the image to early Filipino carvers, who gave it a disproportionate body and emotionless face.
Another attraction of this church is the tableau of the Last Supper, where 13 life-size images of Jesus and the Twelve Disciples are seated around a long table. The images are dressed in real cloth. This tableau is permanently enshrined in the right side templette of the church.
Pink Sisters’ Convent
The contemplative Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit (SSpS) attract many Cebuano adorers to their shrine every day, and more on Holy Thursday for Visita Iglesia.
The design of the convent’s chapel is modern, intended to draw attention to the Eucharistic Lord, exposed 24/7 in the middle of the altar.
The sisters actually take turns in spending an hour of adoration before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament over 24 hours, but the chapel is closed to the public from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Although it can seat only about 200 worshippers, there is silence and peace for everyone who visits this convent.
(The author is a Cebuano. He has a doctorate in public administration, a master’s degree in urban planning, a bachelor’s degree in economics and a postgraduate certificate in Cebuano studies.)