Catholics around the Philippines re-enact the crucifixion of Jesus Christ during Holy Week, but San Fernando, Pampanga takes it to extreme. Good Friday in Santa Lucia and San Pedro Cutud draws thousands of people every year mainly for one reason: men and women are nailed to the cross for real.
When we arrived there at around 9 a.m., we could already see processions of flagellants or penitentes, hooded men whipping their already bleeding backs.
Filipinos have come to use the term penitensya to exclusively refer to the act of flagellation, although the word is really a general term for all acts of repentance. Right then, we could not help but be amazed at how religious traditions were still intact in Pampanga, not like in Metro Manila where people are less traditional.
On almost every street were penitentes, some walking with a Kristo, a man imitating Christ, dressed in red and carrying a wooden cross. We also came across a long procession of maybe more than a hundred people walking barefoot, parading a huge cross.
Santa Lucia Crucifixions
The Barangay Santa Lucia crucifixion site is located beside a basketball court. The organizers built a concrete structure in March 2008 specifically for the re-enactment, so people could better see the presentation.
A winding pathway led up to the platform with three crosses. A few meters away stood a pole with a hanging rope, definitely for the Judas part.
Spectators gathered inside the basketball court, protected from the scorching sun. The crucifixion play started at around 11 a.m., an hour later than what a street guide told us.
There was a bit of a sorry incident prior to the actual play. A penitente, who positioned himself at the right-side cross fainted and fell straight to the ground. Most likely it was due to the burning heat of the sun or massive blood loss from the gruesome flagellation. He was rushed to the clinic a few meters away.
The atmosphere changed when the group of flagellants, centurions, men clothed in white, Kristo, and the group of women led by ‘Mary’ arrived. Loud, poignant music dominated the air. The story was told in kapampangan, the local dialect of Pampanga. I am not Catholic, but I must admit, the presentation was quite good.
Judas got the loudest cheer from the spectators as he waved to them after he finished his hanging act. After the play, nine men were nailed to the cross.
San Pedro Cutud Crucifixions
The crowd in Santa Lucia proceeded to San Pedro Cutud, where another set of crucifixions were set. Many people preferred marching to the site, which was very much prepared for thousands of spectators. Crowd control was excellent. Vehicles were guided accordingly to a large parking lot.
From the entrance, one could already see the three crosses on the stage. The sun was a killer at 12 noon, so it was a relief that there were stalls selling food and drinks.
San Pedro Cutud is more popular than the other crucifixion sites because the venue gives the feeling of being closer to the real thing. The ground is covered with lahar, thus with so many people roaming around, we had to deal with dusty air, in addition to the killer heat. My sister and I couldn’t help but laugh when we heard the man on the mic casually announcing something like, “penitentes, please leave the stage now, and those who will be nailed to the cross, please fall in line.”
There were approximately thousands of people on the site. Some have strategically positioned themselves on top of jeepneys to get a better view of everything, while others shielded themselves from the sun with umbrellas or hand-made hats sold in the area.
The play began at around 1 p.m. when the centurions on horses entered the scene through a pathway leading to the stage. The announcer requested the people to respect the play as several media men and photographers blocked the path when they tried to get a better shot of the actors. People were also requested to fold their umbrellas when the play started. The play was fairly much the same as the one in Santa Lucia, only much grander.
We left before the event ended to avoid being caught in heavy traffic. Around that time, everyone in our group was so exhausted from the heat and dust. We had our share of calvary, so we said, although it’s nothing compared to being nailed to the cross. On our way out of the vicinity, we had our last glimpse of the penitentes, this time, drinking beer and hard liquor by the roadside.
Many people criticize the crucifixions in San Fernando, Pampanga, for all the gory details and since they are not endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church. But I simply see it as part of the culture and tradition in San Fernando, Pampanga, a testament to the steadfast faith, albeit somehow over the edge, and the firm grip to old traditions and rituals, despite the modernization around.
Similar crucifixion practices also happen in Hagonoy Bulacan. Overall, there were 25 people crucified in San Fernando. The 2009 crucifixion rites saw for the first time the participation of a foreigner who presented himself as John Michael, but was later identified as Australian radio and TV personality John Safran. Read more about it here. The crucifixion organizers in Kapitangan, Paombong, Bulacan, where Safran was crucified, expressed dismay after finding out that Safran lied to them about his true intentions for being nailed to the cross. They said they would be stricter to foreigners next time.
How To Go There
Should you get curious or interested in the San Fernando crucifixions, try these directions. From Manila, you can take North Luzon Expressway (NLEX) and exit at San Fernando, head west and turn left to MacArthur Highway, which means that you should not take the flyover. Upon reaching a rotunda with a sculpture, take the right-side road until you reach the church of San Fernando. A series of right and left turns follows, but the best and still the most effective way to get to the actual sites is to ask the people in the street as you might get lost even when you are holding already holding map. You can also go there from Bulacan via MacArthur Highway until you reach San Fernando City. This route could take longer if taken from Manila because the road is narrower than NLEX.