by Marc E. Gaba (From "Town and Country", Dec. 2006 issue)
Like Orpheus, the walled City of Intramuros was, after her time, a torn body. For three centuries after it was built in 1571, the 160-acre, 51-block fortress housed the powers of political and military acumen, secured fortunes, and with more than 10 churches tolling their bells at defined hours, the seat of religious persuasion.
But the bombs of World War II turned Intramuros into a dust heap. In time, the fortress city's traditions adjusted to the architectures that rose after its devastation, which also had the effect of marginalizing the centuries-old religious ritual of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8.
The war put an end to the feast in 1945; but in 1954, President Ramon Magsaysay led the first postwar Marian procession, which assembled some 60 images of the Blessed Virgin. It would, however, take more than 2 decades to restore the splendor of both Intramuros and the elaborate December feast.
When, in 1978, construction began where the palace of the Spanish Governor General on Plaza de Roma once stood, it was clear to watchers that the amnesia of commercialism had taken over the important, palpable absence of the old.
"They had lost the community spirit in Manila", says cultural historian Jaime Laya, who was part of the presidential cabinet of the time. Out of his own sense of alaram and initiative, he was appointed by-then President Ferdinand Marcos to rebuild the city by heading the Intramuros Administration. Its mandate was simple: "To make Intramuros live again".
The simplicity of the mandate belies the delicate intricacy of the task, because reviving Intramuros entailed the revival of its religious traditions--at a time when the country had achieved, at least in principle, the separation of the Church and the State. The new Intramuros would need to resurrect its tradition of religious processions, and it must be true to form.
Says art patron Ado Escudero, who was invited to join the Intramuros Administration at its inception, "in the old days (before the war), the processions included a military contingent. It was a military procession".
Of course, political fortunes had by then shifted. The country was emerging from the tight grip of Martial law, and as Escudero puts it, "Time came when the people had become 'allergic' to the military--both the ordinary people and the clergy". In high biblical fashion, being stoned was a concern. "Eve Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin was very suspicious. In the beginning, he didn't want to join the porcession".
Finding a Hermana Mayor-- a distinguished organizer was simple enough: Mrs. Imelda Marcos welcomed the invitation and sent her daughter Irene. A talk with general Romeo Espino solved the problem of military involvement; the army would wear civilian clothes. Then the major obstacle presented itself.
"The walls were almost finished", Escudero says, "and sure, we were rebuilding examples of old houses in Intramuros, but the religious devotion and traditions have already left those walls for elsewhere". The procession, in short, had no image of the Blessed Virgin. "I told Jaime Laya that we should go look for (an image's) head and hands".
Philanthropist Imelda Conjuangco, on the other hand, has been a devotee of the Blessed Virgin since her early childhood-- a devotion Cojuangco believes has kept her safe and given her countless blessings. She recalls, "When I got sick in 2005, she made me feel I was special, that I am special, because I did not suffer. Some doctors predicted that I would never get out of the hospital alive, but I did not feel anything at all. I did not feel I was dying".
In 1980, she was asked to be the Second Hermana of the procession. "That first time", she says, "I fell in love. So when I was asked to be a Hermana Mayor in 1981, I was told it would be nice if we could start a Cofradia., a congregation of devotees to our Lady. So that was exactly what I did".
So began the Cofradia de la Immaculada Concepcion, the moving soirit of the procession. danilo Dolor, businessman and cultural activist, and the Cofradia's current vice chairman, notes that the early members of the Cofradia were the Blue Ladies, the name given to the then-First lady Imelda Marcos's circle of friends. However, Cojuangco says, "the organization is not a social club or a society organization. It is a group of devotees of the Virgin Mary. We have recollections and pilgrimages. It's not a high-society thing".
Each year, the Cofradia visits imprisoned women and sponsors the intriduction of 500 children from depressed areas to the Eucharist, apart from several other charitable--and unsung--activities. "The most important thing", Dolor says of the Cofradia, "is that we are canonically recognized by the archdiocese as a maria organization. It may not be officially sanctioned by the Cathedral, but there's a degree of recognition that we receive from the archdiocese".
Cojuangco names the Cofradia as her dearest cause. Asked where she keeps her Virgin, she says with authority and delight: "In my room".
"My Vrgin has a beautiful face", she says. "I talk to her, I thank her for the day, and I walways admire her. When the lights are on, she always seems to be smiling. And when I feel that I have been naughty", she says, "she doesn't smile".
Cojuangco, whose frail health has kept her from watching the entire porcession since 2005, recalls, "The people were just eager to show off their Virgins. They dress her up. You know, during the procession, you would think that our ladu is a (fashion) model. She would be so radiant".
Three-storied or columned, canopied or boat-shaped, the carrozas--floats on which images of the Lady stand--are islands of silver at dusk. From the candles, bulbs, light pools around the emblems carved on the carroza's silver panels, then shines up to touch the Virgin's face. Light falls on the flowers around her, bouquets and garlands of them, flowers chosen to match her brocaded garments. "It's always a beautiful affair every year", Cojuangco says, "I always think that the previous procession is beautiful, but it gets more beautiful as the years go by".
Although nuanced differently, Laya, Escudero and Dolor affirm their insistence on the procession's traditional character. Referring to mechanized images that evoke figures seen at theme park rides, Dolor says, "We want none of those fancy moving objects". "We want the old devotion", Escudero intones.
"The procession," Laya says, "has several implications. It can encourage devotion to family life. In that sense, it helps reinforce traditional values. It's part of our culture. It helps make Filipinos different. I think Filipinos are always looking for something to be proud of.
When its revival began, the procession had eight carrozas; today it includes 80, and attendance to it is constantly rising. Te Laguna town of Pakil shuts down for a day, and with four bands, Pakil enters Intramuros to participate. One group hands out native Filipino delicacies as they go. This unautocartic call to prayer is heeded joyfully.
It's a river of energy, flooding down the cobblestone streets of Intramuros--a living rope of pageantry and prayer. or, perhaps, a necklace for a country gifted with so much history. As the carrozas leave Manila Cathedral. it would seem that the heavens are loosening up as doves, pigeons and airplanes fly above the reconstructed city, and the jewels of 80 images of the Blessed Virgin shine.
"Can you imagine going there and stopping the procession?", asks Escudero. "When it's time to celebrate, you cannot argue with the townspeople".