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Asia Pacific Augistinian Conference

An Annual Cebu Fiesta

On the third Sunday each January, the Fiesta Señor Sto. Niño (“Festival of the Holy Child”) is conducted by the Augustinians in Cebu, Philippines. It is most probably one of the best-attended annual Christian religious festivals in the world.

On 16th January 2010 an estimated 2,200,000 persons witnessed the solemn procession of the Sto. Niño image, a tally that is increasing annually. Fr Eusebio Berdon OSA (Provincial) explains: “Generally the Catholic Filipino people have a great love for the Holy Child, and have a strong faith in Him. A great number are also religiously attached to the Sto. Niño, as He may have touched their lives in various ways. Most Filipino migrant workers come home from abroad for Christmas, and make sure to wait for the Sto. Niño feast as part of their promise and devotion to the Holy Child.”

This small statue of the Holy Child was then rediscovered there in 1565 by the expedition of the Conquistador, Miguel López de Legaspi that came from New Spain (Spanish-controlled Mexico) to make settlements in the Philippines. When the natives refused to allow the foreign visitors to land on their shores, the Legaspi expedition raked the village of Cebu with canon fire. After the natives then rushed to the mountains in fear, the Spaniards landed.The origin of this devotion to the Sto. Niño goes back to the arrival of the first Europeans in the central Philippines in March 1521. On that occasion, a statue of the Sto. Niño was presented to the Queen of Cebu by the Portuguese naval explorer and head of the expedition, Ferdinand Magellan, after her baptism to the Catholic faith together with the other members of the Royal Family.

A Spanish soldier found the statue of the Sto. Niño. This incident was considered miraculous as the native structure containing the image was the only dwelling that was undamaged. On this exact location, Commodore Legaspi ordered the construction of a chapel to enthrone the Sto. Niño. The five chaplains of the Legaspi expedition were all Augustinians, led by Fray Andres Urdaneta OSA, making these friars the first missionaries in the Philippines and the custodians of the Sto. Niño.

Although the annual celebration contains this huge procession, the festival actually begins eleven days earlier, with a nine-day novena-Masses (novinario), followed by another three days (triduum) of more solemn Masses. There are ten Masses in the Basilica on almost all of these days, between 4.00 am and 8.00 pm. The number of worshippers at these Masses increases as the feast day becomes closer. On the feast day itself, between 10,000 and 30,000 people attend each Mass, flowing beyond the Basilica compound into the neighbouring streets. There are as many as seventy concelebrating priests at some of these Masses.That rudimentary chapel has long since been replaced by the present Basilica shrine (officially, the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño de Cebu). The original sixteenth-century Sto. Niño statue today has pride of place in a bullet-proof glassed chapel at the left side altar of the Basilica, where an endless queue of devotees pay homage daily.

Thousands of people at open-air Mass during the Fiesta

As well as these Masses, there are two large processions on the Saturday immediately before the feast day. The first of them is called the fluvial procession, held in the morning; it was added to the celebrations in the early 1980s. From the nearest sea port to the Basilica, the landing of the statue (using a replica of the Sto. Niño image) is re-enacted, and then a foot procession moves to the Basilica grounds for the re-enactment of the first baptism in the Philippines of the then local chieftain and his queen, followed by their people.

In the afternoon of that same Saturday, the solemn procession is held. For this ceremony, the Sto. Niño image (formerly the original, but because of its physical condition, for the last few years only a replica blessed by the Pope) is taken from its urn and re-dressed with a new set of expensive vestments donated by devotees. The image is the much-awaited feature of the procession, in which  thousand of devotees (last year estimated at 1,2 million) participate in prayers and songs of praise all throughout the procession.

The original Sto. Niño image is made of wood and about one-foot tall, believed to be made in Flanders, Belgium around the beginning of the 16th century.

The procession has taken place always since time immemorial but took more solemnity since 1965, the fourth centennial of the Christianization of the Philippines. The route is usually around the selected larger streets of the “old town” Cebu, varying from five to eight kilometres distance and last from 2.00 pm to 7.00 pm.  Dignitaries, both ecclesiastical and civil, as well as religious, students and personnel from both catholic and non-denominational colleges and universities, with musical bands from these schools and from police and military, join the procession. Formerly only the image of Sto. Niño was carried around during the procession, but lately the image of the Our Lady of Guadalupe and of the “Ecce Homo,” which have religious and historical importance also in the City of Cebu, were added.

Augustinians at the Sto. Niño  procession

Various other Catholic parishes nationwide also celebrate the feast of Sto. Niño, as do Filipino communities in the U.S.A., Australia and elsewhere. They often use the paraliturgical activities as at Cebu, such as the fluvial and solemn processions.

More broadly, the Sto. Niño feast has become a major public attraction in Cebu every January. Some foreign tourists focus more on the cultural side of the celebration which is called the “Sinulog” – the street dancing competitions that pay homage to the Holy Child through a prayer dance. The dancers express the different forms of prayer-dance to the Sto. Niño: asking for favours (healing of sickness, success in an endeavour), or praise and thanksgiving.

Originally, the “sinulog” is a religious dance, presented as an offering to the Sto. Niño by devotees.  The dance, before the image or at least facing the Basilica, may be performed by the devotee personally or through the “women sinulog prayer-dancers” who frequent the vicinity of the Basilica.

 At present there are eight members of the Augustinian Community in the Basilica. Their main apostolate is to attend to the spiritual needs of all devotees frequenting the Basilica (Masses, Sacrament of Reconciliation, counselling, directing the different mandated organizations of the Basilica) and the propagation of the devotion to the Sto. Niño. The present Rector of the Basilica is Fr Rodolfo A. Bugna, OSA, who is also the Provincial Treasurer and member of the Provincial Council.

And why this great popularity of the Sto. Niño?  It is widely believed that the Sto. Niño has played an important role in the introduction of the Catholic faith in the Philippine Islands.  Likewise, the ordinary folks attest to how the Sto. Niño has granted a million petitions and answered prayers as presented by testimonies of devotees from different walks of life. In effect, the devotion is passed down in families from one generation to the next.”  Uploaded August 2012

(By Fr Eusebio B. Berdon OSA: from the APAC Bulletin)

The website of the minor basilica is http://basilicasantonino.org.ph  and the website of the Augustinian Province of Cebu is http://osacebu.org.ph

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