LUCBAN, Quezon—“It was an avalanche of faith and devotion.”
That was how, healing priest, Fr. Joseph “Joey” Faller, described the mass of pilgrims flocking to the five-hectare Kamay ni Hesus (Hand of Jesus) shrine here since Palm Sunday to observe the Holy Week.
For the first time in 10 years since the shrine started to attract Lenten pilgrims, legions of devotees flooded the vast complex on Good Friday as they inched their way to its gate.
“This only happened this year,” Faller said.
The priest, believed by pilgrims to possess a gift from God to cure the sick, is the administrator of the shrine, which is under the supervision of the Diocese of Lucena.
Faller called the influx of devotees a manifestation of the Year of the Faith declared by then Pope Benedict XVI.
The devotees came in buses, cars, jeeps and motorcycles to mark the Holy Week at the shrine located some 2 kilometers from the center of this rustic town at the foot of the mystical Mt. Banahaw.
“They just kept coming, 24 hours a day. I’m proud to be a Catholic,” said a hat vendor. He said he was having a good sale for the past week.
2 million devotees
Despite the seething heat, the devotees displayed remarkable patience as they waited for their turn to reach the half-open gate, sharing bottles of cold water with each other or handing out candies to crying children.
“This is like the road to heaven—it’s difficult but you will be very happy once you get in,” someone in the crowd shouted in Filipino. ”
This correspondent was caught in the middle of the crowd for about 30 minutes before finally stepping into the shrine premises.
Once inside the complex, the mass of devotees became subdued as classical piano pieces filled the air. Most pilgrims were seen silently praying in front of their favorite saints. More than 150 monument of saints are scattered around the place.
SPO4 Floricel de los Santos, head of the Lucban police unit in charge of security at the shrine, estimated the number of visitors that have arrived since Palm Sunday at more than 2 million. There was no way of independently verifying the figure.
“The figure last year was almost doubled. The number was more than what we expected,” De los Santos said.
Police last year estimated the number of visitors at 1.5 million—religious pilgrims, summer picnickers, balikbayan and curiosity seekers.
Police said the opening of the town’s diversion road helped ease the traffic problem. But the flow of people remained massive.
“They were occupying the road. It was an endless flood of walking people,” De los Santos said.
Medical teams attended to several devotees who had fainted.
As the clock struck at midnight, throngs of mostly young people joined “Lakbay Kamay ni Hesus 2013”—a midnight procession from Lucena City and Pagbilao in Quezon and the neighboring towns of Laguna to the Lucban shrine.
The participants, mostly young people, walked 22 kilometers for more than four hours in a communal expression of their faith. Along the route, they sang spiritual songs, prayed the Rosary and did the Stations of the Cross.
Until noon on Good Friday, penitential hikers who did not participate in the midnight procession continued to arrive at the shrine, just as throngs of other pilgrims were making their way home.
Bumper-to-bumper vehicles carrying devotees from as far as Cagayan Valley and the Bicol region—based on the markings on the side of passenger jeepneys—stretched for 7 kilometers as they snaked their way to Lucban from nearby Tayabas City.
Joel Samonte, a senior college student from Lucena, said he had been hiking his way to the shrine as “a penance for my sins.” Praying and singing as he trudged along, he described his hike as “spiritually enhancing.”
“My friends and I enjoyed it,” he said while slurping pancit habhab from a banana leaf. “We did not get tired. It seems the prayers and the singing have been charging us with renewed energy to walk and pray, walk and pray.”
Walking with Christ
Faller described the arrival of the throngs of tired, sweating hikers at dawn on Good Friday as a manifestation of the “renewed faith of the Filipino people, especially the youth.”
“The sea of young Catholics praying and singing on a desolate highway at the break of dawn was quite a moving scene. They really walked with Christ,” he said.
The healing priest said he joined the first kilometer of the walk from Lucena. “I have to rush to the shrine to prepare for the arrival rites,” he said.
He said a number of the hikers came from Manila.
Not enough certificates
Faller said he and his staff were not able to distribute certificates to all hikers. “We only printed some 12,000 copies. The number of participants was so big so we skipped the awarding. What they received, instead, were a blessing and a spiritual salutation from heaven,” he said.
The number of pilgrims reached its peak at dawn, according to a shrine volunteer.
“They were scattered everywhere. When the sun started to rise, they started to leave, causing a choke point at the gate because of a fresh stream of incoming devotees,” said Ireneo Absulio.
Earlier, Faller, wearing a bull cap, a jogging suit and dark shades, was seen strolling around the shrine. Devotees who recognized him received his blessings.
Stairway to Heaven
Devotees wanting to climb the 300-step Stairway to Heaven to reach the 50-foot statue of Christ—touted to be the third tallest icon of Jesus in the world after that in Bolivia (70 feet) and that in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (150 feet)—formed a long line from the parking lot and then through the so-called Garden of Eden, before stepping on the first stone stair.
“We’ve been on the line for two hours and we’re still 50 meters away from the entrance of the stairs. But we don’t mind. This is only a little sacrifice compared to that of Jesus,” Anselma Obano, an entrepreneur from Makati City, told the Inquirer.
Beside her were his husband Carlos and two kids who were slurping on ice cream cones to fight the noonday heat.
“We will join Fr. Joey in praying for honest and peaceful election so that the people would elect good leaders,” Carlos said.
Faller has said that holding of clean elections this May would be in his prayers.
On Maundy Thursday at around 10 p.m., the whole shrine was plunged into darkness after its main power transformer tripped off. Power was restored at 3 a.m.
During the outage, most of the pilgrims lit candles and opened their mobile phones for lights, a young pilgrim said.
“With lighted candles all around. The scene inside a sacred place looked more pious and dramatically spiritual,” said Viel Polintan, who participated in the penitential walk.
While Faller was busy praying for the sick and attending to the spiritual needs of the devotees, his own family was experiencing a personal crisis of their own.
Faller said his elder brother Gerry, a physician in the United States, had been rushed to a Chicago hospital after suffering a stroke on Thursday. “My other brother informed me that Doc Gerry is now brain dead,” he said.
The priest said he would be flying to Chicago on the first hour of Sunday. He said he could not leave before then because the Holy Week was the busiest period at the shrine.
“This is the life that I embraced when I was ordained a priest. God first and my family only second,” he said.
He appealed to the public to join him in prayer for his brother. “Let Thy will be done,” he said.
Faller later announced his brother’s death in his Facebook account:
“With a very heavy heart, I regret to tell you my brother, Doc Gerry Faller, at the age of 51, has gone back to his Creator this Good Friday March 29 at 7:54 p.m. Chicago time. Please pray for his soul.”