In his essay “Sa Loob ng Maynila1,” National Artist of the Philippines for Literature Nick Joaquin described Intramuros as “a collective high altar formed by its churches.” He also noted that it was “the custom and ceremony that brought all Manila inside the walls of Intramuros at certain times of the year” that would make one remember the Walled City.
Nick Joaquin went on to share his childhood memories of visiting the Intramuros’ seven churches for the customary Visita Iglesia. Unfortunately, World War II forever changed Manila’s crown jewel. Nowadays, one cannot complete a line-up of seven churches for Visita Iglesia in Intramuros alone because gone are its notable “high altars.” The custom now is to make stops at the Manila Cathedral and San Agustin Church then go beyond the walls to visit other nearby churches and to complete the devotion.
But the customs and traditions of Intramuros have a unique charm and character. Joaquin pointed out that it was common for people during his childhood to attend two Masses on Sundays—a low Mass at one’s own parish church and a high Mass in Intramuros. He described high Masses in Intramuros as having “the elegance and solemnity that were beyond the resources of the average parish church: rich vestments, elaborate rituals, learned sermons and superb music.” And spending the Easter weekend in Intramuros made me realize that Joaquin’s description of the religious ceremonies in Intramuros holds true.
Attending the Easter Vigil service headed by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the Archbishop of Manila, felt like I was suddenly transported to the innermost sanctum of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Or, to be less exaggerated, it seemed the Pope was back in the Cathedral celebrating Mass just like what he did early this year.
The cathedral was in total darkness as the vigil begun outside where the Easter fire was burning—the fire that would then be used to light the Paschal candle. The atmosphere inside was somber as the light from the Paschal candle and the candles held by the gathered faithful filled the cathedral. The service climaxed to the powerful singing of Exsultet (the Easter proclamation) and Gloria led by the choir accompanied by the the country’s biggest pipe organ. The Manila Cathedral was brimming with faithful eager to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus—the heart and soul of the Christian faith. Indeed, to borrow Joaquin’s words, Manileños from all over assembled sa loob ng Maynila (inside Manila) for this elaborate ceremony. With the dramatic lighting and the intricate architecture of Manila Cathedral as backdrop, this ceremony marking the start of the Easter celebration is truly something I would find very hard to forget.
This is the most solemn vigil I have ever attended to date, I told myself.
The service lasted for more than 3 hours, but it did not feel a drag at all, not even for a minute. The hymns, pageantry and reverential ceremonies exhibited during the vigil overwhelmed my senses, and the whole thing left me dumbfounded. I guess that just the way things go when experiencing something divine; words are simply not enough to describe one really went through.
As Cardinal gave his final blessing that night, my feet brought me to the church next door for the Salubong—a popular Easter tradition in the Philippines and other former colonies of Spain. The tradition involves a re-enactment of Mary and Jesus’ first meeting after the Resurrection. As the clock struck twelve midnight, the bells of San Agustin Church tolled heralding that Jesus’ has risen. The image of the Risen Christ arrived at the church’s compound after a procession then the doors of San Agustin Church opened and there came out the image of the Mater Dolorosa (Our Lady of Sorrows). As the decorated carriages carrying the two images inched closer to each other, a girl dressed up as an angel lifted the Mater Dolorosa’s black veil—a symbol that Mary’s sorrow has ended upon seeing her son risen from the dead.
During the heyday of Manila’s Walled City, Joaquin noted, that Intramuros “acted as a center round which Manila moved as a coherent community, sharing and continuing certain observances and traditions.” While some edifices, customs and traditions that shaped Walled City’s quaint charm and character are forever gone, the Intramuros of today continues to be an important place of congregation for tens of thousands of Manileños and even the tourists curious to see what the city has to offer.
Joaquin ended his essay lamenting the destruction of Intramuros and the loss of its different observances and traditions associated with the churches, chapels and convents that once stood there. But this citadel of Manila has an irreplaceable charm that still move Manileños to congregate sa loob ng Maynila—“where the ‘past’ stubbornly [insists] on being the present”—and to carry out custom and traditions that link us to the bygone days of this historic district. Because, simply put, these practices that speak volumes of our glorious history are best done and experienced in no other place but sa loob ng Maynila.
- Joaquin, N. (1998). Sa Loob ng Maynila. In G. Abad (Ed.), The Likhaan Anthology of Philippine Literature in English from 1900 to the Present (pp. 414-27). Quezon City: The University of the Philippines Press. ↩