For Roman Catholics, today is the day to visit seven churches in a tradition called Visita Iglesia, or literally, church visit. The practice dates back to ancient times when Holy Thursday was marked in the Holy Land with a visit to some of the sites associated with the defining moments in the passion and death of Jesus Christ.
In ancient Rome, the practice would require one to visit the seven earliest basilicas which were built after the Roman emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan finally recognizing Christianity as a state religion in A.D. 313.
Due to the obvious difficulty of going to Rome or Jerusalem during this holiest of weeks in the entire year, Filipino Catholics carry out church visits—now fast becoming religious sightseeing tours—of seven churches of their own choosing. During these visits, prayer and meditation are the norm and any small talk or boisterous laughter is always frowned upon. Some recite the rosary at every church; others break this down into parts, reciting a portion at each church. Still others go through all the 14 Stations of the Cross that are conspicuously spread around the church and pray at each stop. The tradition makes for a somewhat lively yet solemn pilgrimage.
To those whom both spirit and flesh are willing, I recommend this heritage visita iglesia going southeast to seven heritage churches built by Augustinians during the middle to late Spanish period. Begin your visit at the farthest of these churches, Boljoon Church, or the Church of the Nuestra Señora del Patrocinio (which locals call the Patrocinio de Sta. Maria Church). This is the only church declared a National Cultural Treasure (NCT) by the National Museum, in sharp contrast to many that have been declared by NM in Bohol. Savor the retablo or altar screen intricately carved in Baroque style and gilded around the late 1800s and early 1900s. Mediate on the symbolisms around the façade of this church carved on coral stone blocks, especially the pelican feeding her own flesh to her young (Christsacrificing himself for all).
From Boljoon Church, speed back to Dalaguete to visit the Church of San Guillermo de Aquitania and note the church façade, again with carved embellishments including two Augustinian saints. Note also the National Historical Marker installed by the National Historical Institute way back in the late 1990s. Read the brief story of this church on this marker and then proceed inside. Meditate as you stare up at the ceiling paintings made by Canuto Avila and his sons (including daughter Maria) in the 1920s as you head on to the retablo or altar screen. The one in Dalaguete may be smaller than that of Boljoon and devoid of gilding but it is no less magnificent.
After Dalaguete, proceed to Argao at the San Miguel Arcangel Church. Never mind the altar retablo and those antique carved images of saints now glistening with gold leaf appliques made by some parish priest who had no idea that what he was doing was turning the altar into some Shaolin temple. Pray instead that the heavens will forgive whoever caused this tragedy sometime in 2006. The ceiling paintings of this church are not as grand as those of Dalaguete’s but they nevertheless are there to educate the faithful. Argao’s grandest treasure, however, is not inside the church but at its patio outside directly facing the façade. Here on the walls that surround the patio line symbolic renditions of the Stations of the Cross, the only one of its kind in the country today. Carved on coral stone blocks harvested two centuries back from the sea, these symbolisms of the 14 events that marked Christ’s painful march to his crucifixion are there waiting for you to ponder and meditate upon. It is here that you must spend more time.
After Argao, proceed to Sibonga at the Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza, and be enthralled and hypnotized by the grand gesture that is its ceiling paintings, rendered by Raymundo Francia, the great rival of Canuto Avila, two painters who made their mark on many church ceilings all over Cebu and Bohol. Alas only this one retains so much of those paintings. None have survived the onslaught of time in other churches. If there is one church that has captured so many of the important Biblical scenes worth knowing by heart, this is that church. Recognized two years ago by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines as an important historical landmark, this church too has a national marker. Read the brief history of this church first before going inside.
After Sibonga, proceed to Carcar, to the Sta. Catalina de Alejandria Church. Stop lighting candles at the barbecue-like stand behind the 1930s Christ the King statue which has become an eyesore. It does not do justice that one lights candles behind Christ’s back. Stare at the church façade for a moment. Note that this is the only church in Cebu with a belfry that has onion domes, much like a Muslim mosque or an Eastern Orthodox Church like the ones inside the Kremlin in Moscow, where the veneration to Sta. Catalina was strongest especially during the reign of her namesake, Catherine the Great. The Arab or Islamic influence on this church is prevalent not just in the twin belfries but also at its main portal and its windows.
You are now almost back in the city. Before proceeding to the end-point, however, you have one more church to go to and I recommend the mother of all the Augustinian Churches, the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño. Everybody has read everything about this church, its age, and the miraculous Sto. Niño de Cebu and I shall no longer add anything new. After prayers, cross the street and proceed tothe Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral, seat of the Archbishop of Cebu. Recently renovated in time for the 75th year of Cebu as an Archdiocese in 2010, the church is the most apt to end one’s visit iglesia. Not only are you back in the city in time, hopefully, for the twilight Mass there, but you are also at the very heart of the churches under the Archdiocese.
* * *
For Good Friday and Black Saturday, I wish to recommend a visit to Mount Tabor, the house of the Order of Disclaced Augustinians in San Jose, Talamban. Fr. Dennis Ruiz has built, together with his brother priests, the Chapel of Holy Relics there. This is the best place for one to ponder on the mysteries of one’s faith and the salvation that Christ offers to all in just one place—right beside the relics of some 500 or so saints and Christian martyrs. This is not a museum, mind you. And one had better go there to mediate and not just gawk at the relics—mainly tiny parts of bones, hair and blood encased in containers. If you have time, watch the Sugboanong Kabilin episode about this chapel and its relics, which will be shown again on Easter Sunday at CCTN Channel 47 under TV Sugbo.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.