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April 20, 2014

Answering the call

Course of life shifts drastically during Holy Week in Philippines; many moments of prayer, reflection

TERRE HAUTE — Static was the only thing on TV or radio. People were on their knees as they prayed. It was, as if for three whole days, the world stood still.  

I am not describing a disaster movie. Rather, I am sharing what it was like on Maundy Thursdays, Good Fridays and Black Saturdays when I was a very young girl in the Philippines.

I spent many of these days with my great-grandmother named Nena, whom everybody in the family called “Mommy.” She lived 95 long years and was a leader of the Philippine unit of Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima (now known as the World Apostolate of Fatima), a Catholic lay organization.

With her, there were many moments of prayer and reflection.

These childhood memories came back to me on Sunday as I reflected on Easter, one of the biggest and most important of Christian holidays.

I spent many of these holy days in rituals with my Nena, whom in everybody in the family called “Mommy.”

With her, there were many moments of prayer and reflection. As a predominantly Christian country, with residents mostly Catholic, Holy Week and Easter in the Philippines are observed in a solemn way. To many, the Holy Week — which begins on Palm Sunday and ends on Easter Sunday — is a time of fasting, abstinence, penance and prayer.


During those days, we did not eat meat, we did not turn on electronics and we did not do any leisure activity. During the hours of noon to 3 p.m. on Good Friday — the hours that the Gospels said Jesus hung and died on the cross — we did not even talk. American Catholics may recognize the name “Tre Ore” in referring to those three hours.

The observance of the solemnity of the holy week was nationwide.

Schools were closed all week, and only religious-themed shows were on TV. Many people went to church or gathered in their homes for prayer. There were several public processions, prayers and events, some re-enacting the passion of Jesus Christ.

But by Maundy Thursday through Black Saturday, most — if not all — businesses, government offices, schools, organizations, even media were closed. People certainly went to church, but this was often followed by another gathering of prayer at home or with neighbors.

But some of these practices are not unique to the Philippines. An opinion piece by John F. Fink published in this week’s The Criterion, referenced a New York Times story that in the 1950s, during Tre Ore, people in New York went to church, and stores closed their doors. Fink said this was also true in many other U.S. cities back then. “Oh, for the good old days!” when people practiced their religion, Fink said.  

In this day and age, the story I just gave looks just like a long list of restrictions and rules.

But then I asked why people did it.

Why did Mommy spend so much time on her knees as she led a group commemorating Jesus’ seven final words?

Why did people abstain from meat? More importantly, how did they tolerate not watching TV? (I ask that in jest, of course.)

Mommy died on April 14, 2012, before I was able to ask her for answers. But during reflection, I realized that answers to the “whys” are very personal. She may want atonement for her sins, she may be showing her gratitude to God or she may just be practicing her religion.

But such sacrifices have to be more than just about practicing the religion. That’s such a long list of difficult things that we don’t necessarily want to do. But I am convinced that people do it willingly.

 Perhaps it is because their reasons go deeper. Maybe Mommy Nena — and many others — are answering Jesus’ request to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and passion: “Remain here and keep watch with me,” according to the Gospel of Matthew.

The people’s prayers and sacrifices during the Holy Week may be efforts heeding Jesus’ requests to stay with him.

In many ways, it also shows a basic human trait that we perhaps learned from Christ’s history: sympathy for someone’s difficult plight. It’s solidarity.

Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or

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