Primal Religions and Popular Religiosity

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2000 »Volume 37 2000 Number 1 »Primal Religions And Popular Religiosity

José M. de Mesa

JOSÉ M. DE MESA is a married lay theologian. He holds a Ph.D in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium where he was recently a Senior Fellows. At present he is a professor of Systematic Theology and Staff member at the East Asian Pastoral Institute, Quezon City, Philippines.


If religiosity is the cultural embodiment and manifestation of faith, then Catholicism in the lowland Philippines is basically expressed in two forms of religiosity: official and popular Catholicism. The first derives from an external dissemination of the Christian message by missionaries from the West and is still in the main understood and expressed in terms of European culture, while the second comes from the active reception or appropriation of Catholic Christianity by the natives of the islands.

Official Catholicism was propagated throughout the islands in the context of, first Spanish and then later American, imperialism. With a missionary policy coupled with a cultural sense of superiority aimed at an abrupt break with the so called “pagan” past, the church’s attitude towards the local primal religion was unambiguously negative. As far as the ecclesiastical authorities were concerned, conversion to Christianity was one side of a reality of which the other was a turning of one’s back on the primal religion as well as the culture of one’s people. From this point of view, Catholicism intentionally dissociated itself from primal religion or religiosity. And given the inseparability of religion and culture among the local populace, becoming a Christian implied an uprooting from the indigenous way of life, too.

The situation is, however, significantly different when we consider popular Catholicism or popular religiosity, a form of cultural expression of the Catholic faith which is widely tolerated though without any official sanction.1 The continuing, and even flourishing phenomenon of popular religiosity side by side with the existing official Catholicism in the Philippines is indicative of the on-going contribution of primal religion to Christianity in the local context. Because of this, popular religiosity may be considered not so much as what we see as what we see through. This religiosity is like a window that enables us to “see” primal religion still operative in the people’s hearts and minds. In addition to this, popular religiosity also points to or indicates the values stemming from the indigenous primal religion which can contribute to the life of Christian churches in the Philippines.

The first section will look at what happened in the past in order to show how Catholicism was locally appropriated. The second will concentrate on what can happen in the future if something of the primal religion is intentionally and genuinely incorporated into church life and thought.


Talk about the advent of official Roman Catholicism in the Philippines is easily reminiscent of deliberate, and even forcible, imposition of a foreign religion by the missionaries from the West. But discourse regarding popular religiosity elicits another sort of perspective, not “from above” but “from below.” In this view, focus is not on the missionaries proselytizing, but on the local people actively engaging the gospel, struggling to make sense of it and adapting it in their own way. For in the course of the spread of Catholic Christianity by foreign missionaries, the native population was not a group of passive recipients. A tabula rasa their hearts and minds were not. On the contrary, they actively appropriated Western Catholicism according to their cultural-religious way of feeling, thinking and behaving.2 What happened here is a local example of the truth of the dictum,“quidquid recipitur secundum modum recipientis recipitur” (“Whatever is perceived is perceived according to the mode of perception of the perceiver.”). In this way Christianity became part, no matter how unsystematically, of Filipino reality. Popular religiosity confirms in its own way the real acceptance of Christianity by the people. But there is today a continuing discussion as to whether Filipinos had been truly Christianized, or whatever Christianity had simply been Filipinized.

It is true that Filipino Cathoics were baptized with Spanish names, worshipped with Hispano-Roman rites, memorized Spanish hymns and prayers, prayed to Spanish saints and knelt before Spanish-looking statues. It is also true that Christianity was imposed with not a little force. Despite these realities, the primal religious orientation was not radically altered, much less erased, though not without a price.3 Such cultural re-imaging and re-interpretation of Spanish Catholicism within popular religiosity can be gleaned from a number of concrete examples which are directly related to what is religious in the culture.

The tandem of the cultural-religious belief in Bathala, the supreme diety of the populace, and in kapalaran (fate, destiny) had led to a particular conviction within popular religiosity.

Among the few things known about Bathala was that everything that happened to people was divine will. This will was identified with the customs and tradition of the people. A good behavior, which meant one that was in conformity to Bathala’s will, merited panalangin (blessing or grace) and increased one’s chances to suceed in his/her undertakings. On the contrary, gaba or curse was merited for a violation of Bathala’s will, and it was something that would multiply one’s misforrtune. It was further believed that one’s status in life, including economic and social class as well as health and length of life, has been determined by God prior to one’s birth and that there was nothing a person could do to raise his/her status than that which had been already set.

Such a conception was possible because there was no clear demarcation line between the sacred and the profane. Whatever one did had a repercussion in the sacred order. Anthropologist F. Landa Jocano says of a rural area he had carefully studied that its inhabitants considered their society as a small part of a wider natural-social universe inhabited partly by spirits and partly by humans. Because of this, the social prescription for so many human actions was felt to have come from metaphysical demands. Hence, the pattern of social life was fixed because it was part of the general order of the universe, and even if this were hardly understood and regarded as a mysterious, it was nevertheless accepted as invariant and regular.

Kapalaran, for its part, expresses what had previously been pre-determined for each and everyone. Whatever the “turn of fate” is, it is generally believed that it has no relationship to any decision one may make or any effort one may exert. As a Filipino proverb expresses it: “Ang aking kapalaran, di ko man hanapin, dudulog, lalapit kung talagang akin.” (“Although I do not seek for my fortune, it will come to me if it is really mine.”).

The God of Christianity is today seen as responsible for whatever blessings or curses people experience in life. The comment of an earthquake survivor in 1991 is illustrative: “I was so shocked because upon running out, we saw the building collapse and (there was a) report (of) instances of death inside. We saw a lot of people crying outside, shouting for help. It was an experience... I am alive, our house is still intact, my family is alive, while others died. Is this providence? Yes, I think so!”5

What happens in the present happens because God had pre-willed it as part of the divine plan. From the perspective of people’s experiences, fortunate events are suwerte (good fortune) or luck, and the unfortunate ones representmalas (evil fortune or bad luck). God’s existence and the identification of what happens in the world with God’s will are cultural-religious presuppositions into which the Christian understanding of God had been locally recast.6

There is something genuinely positive about this, however. Because everything that happens is under God’s power, people do not lose hope. This belief helps in seeing God not as help-less, but rather as help-full. “May awa and Diyos”(“God is merciful”) is a very common expression among Filipino Catholics. God is perceived to be powerful (makapangyarihan) in situations when people feel powerless about them. More than likely, it is the experience of powerful forces surrounding and confronting people that leads them to see God in this way. In search of someone who can help them out of their predicament, they look up to the God who, not only had given them life, but is also full of understanding and compassion. After all, if this God were responsible for the beginning of life, surely this same God would take care of it.

The world of primal religion is filled with spirits. Behind the visible objects of nature lurked unseen forces of inexplicable behavior. These spirits and powers controlled nature and changes in life and, in many instances, things that have to do with the necessities of life. Although everything happened according toBathala’s will, identified with the customs and traditions of the people, Bathalawas never directly implored. It was believed that Bathala, once creation was done, concerned himself no longer with ordinary human affairs. This was to be the domain of the spirits. Thus people were more concerned with the spirits: spirits of the the forces of nature, the phases of life and the seasons; spirits of the heavens and underworld, the rainbow, the dead, the length of life, harvest, travel and war. Besides these, there was also a group of good and bad spirits, who possessed extraordinary powers and were not be offended in any way. Both types of spirits were invoked for the good which the former would cause and to be safe from the harm which the latter could inflict. It was in this way that the spirits “mediated” between Bathala and the people.

Official Catholic models of holiness, the canonized saints, had been construed as spirits of the Christian world. Just as spirits, of whatever type, mediated between Bathala and the populace -- at times granting favors, but inflicting harm at other times -- so the saints are regraded as mediators between God and the people, heeding people’s petitions or sending them punishments. This may explain the attachment very many Filipino Catholics have for devotional novenas in honor of particular saints. For one, saints like the spirits in primal religion, each have their own respective “specialty.” For example, St. Anthony of Padua is approached to recover lost items which are valuable and there is a St. Jude to whom people with “hopeless cases” have recourse.

Saints, too, like the spirits can grant favors or inflict harm. Hence, they are revered not because the church had canonized them as examples of living virtues and good work, but because they possess powers similar to those of theengkantu (the most powerful environmental spirits), and they can be approached for personal benefits. A rather strong example showing how saints are regarded as spirits is that of a parish in one of the islands where St. Anthony is approached by the people to inflict harm on others. Many critical religious commentators have observed that Catholic practitioners of popular religiosity often put more emphasis on devotion to specific saints than on participation in the official sacramental rites of the church. In a specific setting like that of the celebration of the Mass, which is central to official Catholicism, these devotees are more attentive to their devotion to the saints than to participation in the Mass itself.

To be sure, God’s nearness and approachability can be compromised by such “mediators.” Mediation of this sort, however, needs to be considered also from a cultural perspective. May not such a mediation be regarded as an expression of respect towards someone who is ultimately being approached? In the Philippine context, it would detract from the respect owed an important person if someone just “directly” approached him or her. Even the approachable God, after all, remains the transcendent God who deserves all the respect a culture can show. Recourse to the saints could also arise from the Filipino propensity to seek for a companion in going about an errand. One cultural trait for which the Filipino is quite distinctive is his/her not wanting to be alone or left alone. So what better way to approach God than to have a companion who already knows God intimately.

A third example from popular religiosity that provides a glimpse of primal religion is the way Catholic priests are regarded. While the church considers its priests as community leaders who administers the sacraments, adherents of popular religiosity somehow perceive them as Christian versions of the babaylanes.Babaylanes were and are native priests or shamans. They were valued by the people. Anyone, of course, could offer sacrifices. But the babaylanes were especially chosen for this task because they were not only specialists regarding theengkantu and other environmental spirits, but they also possess extraordinary powers for curing, exorcism and intercession with the good spirits.

Like the babylanes who knew the powers of various spirits and the way to benefit from such powers, priests are assumed to be knowledgeable of which saints (Catholic spirits) were capable of what, as well as what to do to receive favors from these intermediaries. It is not surprising, therefore, to know that it is believed that the priest’s superior knowledge of prayers, especially the Latin prayers, gives him special powers. For instance, it is believed that when witches are discovered in the act of performing their rituals and are threatened with denunciation by the priest, the witches are said to be so terrified that they would promise anything in their power in exchange for silence.7

Priests as babaylanes? To appreciate this way of looking at Catholic priests, we need to be aware of the role of the babaylan in the community. Thebabaylan indeed knows about the powers of the spirits. But knowledge is not for the sake of having power and status over and above the community. It is rather for the sake of the community that the babaylan has this knowledge. And quite usual, it is really knowledge for the sake of healing sicknesses and healing rifts in the community. Healer and reconciler, that is what they really were and are. While it is true that individual priests within Catholicism have been known for such contributions, the general perception of priests has been rather different. Perhaps, if they would enter more into the healing and uniting roles, priests could provide better leadership within the church.


A most important cultural-religious element at work in the appropriation of Catholicism has to do with “feeling” as a manner of perception. The language of popular religiosity is “body language.” It understands realities and expresses its deepest feelings and thoughts through this language because the body “feels.” The various senses enable the body to truly experience and to communicate. It is important to recognize the significance of bodily knowing (=understanding) and bodily language (=communicating). The body knows, and the body communicates through integrated sensing and expressing. When it is at ease, the body relaxes; when it senses tension, there is rigidity in behavior. Quite often bodily pains are the body’s way of communicating that there are things that need to be attended to in our deepest selves. Modern society is only too familiar with emotionally induced illnesses.

The greatest awareness in families takes place through touch, being touched and touching (bodily knowing and communicating). Is it not at times the most precious mutual awareness of each other that one has? Think for a moment of how a newly born baby primarily knows that he or she is welcome and loved. Certainly, not by sight because the new eyes are not functional for some time; not by hearing a language because that still has to be learned. How then? By touch, by the embrace and cuddling of parents, the sound of their voices which increasingly become familiar, as well as the warmth and smell of their bodies -- all these so closely intertwined with each other -- giving a total bodily word which is received as love.

A key element in this body language is pagdama (literally, feeling) which can be translated as sensuous cognition or integrated sensing, where feeling is part of thinking and thinking part of feeling. Pagdama integrates feeling and rationality; it avoids a dichotomy between the two. Although pagdama combines both elements of the affective-intuitive (damdamin) and the rational-cognitive(isip), Filipinos demonstrate a propensity towards the affective-intuitive. This “worldview” might be stated more accurately as a “worldfeel,” grasping and expressing reality through feeling. Thus, the possibility, state and quality of relationships are gauged in terms of feelings (pakiramdaman). We speak spontaneously of a “felt love” (damang pagmamahal). It would not be a isrepresentation of the Filipino manner of perceiving to refer to what has been experienced as what has been felt, including those in explicitly religious events or situations.

Hence, the practice of walking on one’s knees in prayer is a way of “feeling” prayer bodily, whatever the motive behind this bodily gesture. So is lighting a votive candle for a loved one in a church. In the same vein, joining processions is to pray and to meditate not only with one’s feet, but also with the entire body movement, not to speak of seeing lighted candles, feeling their warmth and smelling the odor of their smoke as well as hearing the almost incessant vocalization of repetitive verbal prayer and the occasional singing of religious hymns. By the same token, to wipe with handkerchiefs or small towels statues of Jesus, Mary and of the saints is to communicate by bodily feeling one’s deepest sentiments to the persons represented by these images. Such action makes these persons “feel” one’s prayer. And to wipe such a handkerchief or towel on some ailing part of the body is to “feel” the compassionate power emanating from the personages represented by the statues. The “bodily feel” becomes the communication and communion between the devotee and a holy personage.8

The practice of the devotees of the popular Black Nazarene in the Quiapo church of Manila provides us with an example of the above. According to a study,

(Devotees) all follow the line leading to a glass-covered case, inside of which the Black Nazarene lies in state. One end of the case is open and out of it protrudes the foot of the image. The devotees on reaching near the image cross themselves, wipe the glass with their handkerchiefs or any object which they wipe on any part of their bodies in turn, and murmur a prayer. . . then move on. Reaching the end of the case where the feet of the image protrudes, they cross themselves again, genuflect and wipe the feet of the Black Nazarene with their bodies. . . Then, they kiss the feet of the image. . . Genuflecting, they cross themselves and move out.9

Through body language, religiosity is concretely “felt,” actually experienced and not just rationally grasped. If we have noticed how truthful our bodies are in manifesting what we are actually feeling in them or thinking at the back of our minds, then there is something to be said for the authenticity of this kind of language. Body language is authentic language; it comprehends and expresses what is actually going on; in short, the real. Such is the case when two lovers both know that something is wrong between them by subtle and unspoken communications in silence and eye contact. They do not feel at ease. They are truthful in the sense of their refusal to be trapped into duplicity. In meeting a person., for example, whom we are truthfully not pleased to encounter, no matter how seemingly sincere our words are of “I’m pleased to meet you”, our body language could easily “betray” our real feelings.

We have all experienced how our bodies have reacted to relationships long before we became conscious of what was going on. Psychologists, recognizing this phenomenon, encourage us to speak of our “gut feelings.” And the Filipino body “speaks” of persons and things we cannot stomach. We speak of “vibes.”  We recognize the bodily signals of unhealth and distress. We rejoice at our physical feeling of lightness when things are going well or are very happily surprised, and feel the burden of our bodies when disappointment and frustration are our lot instead.

Against the background of a very rationalistic neo-scholastic theology which had been officially introduced and propagated by both foreign missionaries and those trained by them, attending to the importance of “body language” and“pagdama” would not only counter-balance the excessive rationalism in understanding and expressing Christianity, this would also root local theology in what is truly indigenous. The development of a theology of the body and integrated sensing and all that these imply in the Filipino context could provide a fresh framework for the different areas of theological reflection.

Revelation, God’s self initiated relationship with people, could be articulated in terms of God making people “feel” (pagdama) the divine gracious goodness.10 An incarnational (i.e., bodily) approach to the faith would take the humanity of Jesus more seriously than it had been in both official and popular Catholicism. For these two manifestations of the Christian faith, Jesus’ being divine had overshadowed his being human. A more positive regard can also evolve towards sexuality which had been demeaned within Graeco-Roman dualism. Furthermore, if pagdama as sensuous cognition or integrated sensing is truly incorporated in theologizing, the prospect of integrating theology and spirituality would surely be enhanced.

Finally, this would also indirectly affirm the importance and value of primal religiosity because its “world-feel” is being incorporated in Christian thought and practice. Little by little, the negative attitude towards this kind of religiosity could diminish significantly and be replaced by a more positive one of recognizing the work of the Spirit in the indigenous culture and native religion of the people. Primal religiosity could then gain the respect it deserves in church life in general, and within the theological enterprise in particular.


  1. There is a growing shift of attitude towards popular religiosity within Catholicism from one of rejection to one of acceptance, and even appreciation since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). See Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi (Pasay City: Daughters of St. Paul, 1976), pp. 35-36.
  2. I am assuming here not only the non-separation of culture and religion in primal religiosity, but also their integral unity. Winston King expresses a similar thought in his article, “Religion” in Mircea Eliade, ed., The Encyclopedia of Religion, XII (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987), p. 286: “In summary, it may be said that almost every known culture involves the religious in the above sense of a depth dimension in cultural experiences at all levels -- a push, whether ill-defined or conscious, toward some sort of ultimacy and transcendence that will provide norms and power for the rest of life. When more or less distinct patterns of behavior are built around this depth dimension in a culture, this structure constitutes religion in its historically recognizable form. Religion is the organization of life around the depth dimensions of experience -- varied in form, completeness, and clarity in accordance with the environing culture.”
  3. See José M. de Mesa, “Tasks in Inculturation of Theology: The Filipino Catholic Situation,” Missiology XXVI:2 (April, 1998), 193-197.
  4. F. Landa Jocano, Growing Up in A Philippine Barrio: Case Studies in Education and Culture (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), p. 118. See also Douglas Elwood, “Religious Motivation for Socio-Economic Growth,” Solidarity IV:8 (August, 1969), p. 9.
  5. Cf. José M. de Mesa, “Burying the Victims of Natural Disasters in the Philippines,” Concilium 93/3, p. 24.
  6. See José M. de Mesa, And God Said, “Bahala Na!”: The Theme of Providence in the Lowland Filipino Context (Quezon City, Phil.: Maryhill School of Theology, 1979), pp. 81-92.
  7. See Florentino H. Hornedo, “The World and the Ways of the Ivatan Anitu,” Philippine Studies 28 (1980), 49.
  8. A Catholic charismatic group with a very big following (estimate at 5-6 million) in the Philippines called “EI Shaddai” appears to have understood the importance of pagdama and bodily language well. In praying for God’s blessing, its leader sometimes asks people to raise objects that represent what may be important to them like wallets for the needed income or passports which signify the desire to land concretely a lucrative job overseas.
  9. Cf. F. Landa Jocano, Folk Catholicism, Readings in Personality: A Preliminary Compilation, ed. V. G. Enriquez (unpublished text, Centro Escolar University, 1978), pp. 430-438.
  10. See José M. de Mesa and Lode L. Wostyn, Doing Theology: Basic Realities and Processes (Quezon City, Phil.: Claretian Publications, 1990), pp. 127-129.
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