Everyday Catholicism: Expanding the Sacred Sphere in the Philippines

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For nearly fifteen minutes we pass face after face, in every direction. We walk silently, at a steady pace. Were it not for the landmarks in the distance— the city’s skyline on one side, the orange sunset dusting Manila bay on the other—we might be disoriented on our journey toward the rally stage. The crowd of half a million is calm but expectant as they go about settling in on the vast rally grounds. Some listen to the radio broadcast from the grandstand or browse the vending stalls. Others carefully write down their needs, worries, and dreams on prayer-request papers that will be prayed over, when the sky grows dark, by the charismatic Brother Mike from his glowing electric stage in the distance. And somewhere behind the stage curtains, his features artfully outlined with makeup, Brother Mike is stiff with performance jitters that only his wife and his closest aids witness. Up close, with his neon plaid suit and his stage face, he looks fantastically larger than life.

Father Bert, a Filipino Catholic priest, has come with me to this national El Shaddai rally to watch “Brother Mike,” who preaches and heals the faithful here, every Saturday night. Father Bert is not a member of El Shaddai. In fact, he explains, he is against what El Shaddai stands for because he feels it runs counter to liberation theology.1 Nonetheless, he wants to attend just once to “see how it is done.” How does Brother Mike create moods of elation, moods in which one can feel the Holy Spirit moving, moods so powerful that people, men and women alike, come from all over the nation to experience a “prayer and healing rally” lasting five or six hours, sometimes ten, until dawn, and even in the rain? How does he motivate millions of impoverished Filipinos to tithe 10 percent or more of their incomes to an organization that has not even so much as a church building? How does he inspire millions to testify, often publicly, that they have been radically transformed, and that miracles have graced their lives?

Father Bert has listened to tapes of American evangelists like Jimmy Swaggart in an attempt to spice up his oration style, but he still has not managed to fill his church and its coffers to overflowing, nor has he heard any testimonies of miracles, nor of lives dramatically transformed. How do Brother Mike and his preachers do it? After the rally, as we weave through the crowds and traffic on the way home, Father Bert tells me vaguely that experiencing the rally will be helpful in his community organizing, but exactly how, he cannot say.

At the same time, I realize I have just witnessed one of the many faces of Roman Catholicism in the Philippines. Not just Father Bert, but Brother Mike, too. Who is he? Flashy televangelist? Yes. Charismatic leader of a religious movement? Yes. Wealthy businessman turned preacher of prosperity? Yes. Redefining Catholicism for millions of ordinary Filipinos? Yes again.

Of course, it is true that a practicing Catholic from anywhere in the world would likely feel right at home walking into a mainstream Catholic mass or baptism at any church or cathedral in the Philippines. They would likely feel they share many of the same formal prayers and rituals, and perhaps similar moral values. But if they stayed long enough, they would realize that being Catholic is not really the same in every place. Local traditions and ideas contribute to the making and doing of religion everywhere. All religion to some extent springs forth from the cultural context in which it is practiced. In the Philippines, this means that Filipinos have always made Catholicism “their own.” In this chapter, I explore the appeal of El Shaddai for millions of Filipinos who, by enthusiastically following Brother Mike, have created a veritable religious movement. What is El Shaddai? Why has it recently taken off like a rocket in the Philippines? But first, let us explore how El Shaddai is but one example in a history of Filipino adaptation of Roman Catholicism to local culture and to the current concerns of its people.

 

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