Words: Michael “Mega” Yabut
Photos: Aliver “Adoborat” Cedillio

In 1985 I was growing up in Angeles City, in the district of Pampanga, Philippines. One of my first memories was the Penitensya that took place in my neighborhood during Holy Week, which begins every year in April.

Filipinos have come to use the term Penitensya to refer to the act of flagellation, although the word is really a general term for any act of repentance. I was five years old at the time. Not knowing what was going on around me, I look back on how amazed I was with it all.

Each year in Pampanga men walks barefoot for miles from barrio (neighborhood) to barrio, hitting themselves on the back with small bamboo sticks attached to a rope. Most dress in jeans and wrap a rope around their body. Their faces are covered with ripped t-shirts, while a crown of blessed palm leaves adorns some heads.

A designated person chants prayers from the Bible while the mass of flagellants walks between punis—worship altars made from bamboo and banana-tree leaves. The penitents then lay on their stomachs and are struck with bamboo poles, belts, and other wooden objects as they ask for forgiveness and remember the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Mixed in with the flagellants are men dressed in robes and crowns of thorns also with their faces covered. They bear large wooden crosses and will participate in the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) re-enactment on Good Friday, the climax of Holy Week.

Men take part in the Penitensya so that they may be granted a “second life.” They feel they can live at peace after finishing this ritual. I always look forward to going home to Angeles City during this time because this celebration only takes place in a few parts of the world. For me, to grow up experiencing the sacrifice these men go through for forgiveness puts a lot of things into perspective; I’m living life every day, learning from different cultures and people trying to better themselves.