Peñafrancia Basilica Minore and National Shrine



Facade of Peñafrancia Basilica Minore and National Shrine

The Bicol Region, composed of six provinces in southern Luzon, namely, Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Albay, Catanduanes, Sorsogon and Masbate, in recent times have almost been identified, if not synonymous, with Our Lady of Peñafrancia, the almost 291 years-old image of the Blessed Virgin Mary which is enshrined in her sanctuary in Basilica Avenue, Naga City.

The popular and intense devotion to this image is said to have started with a seminarian from the University of Sto. Tomas named Miguel Robles de Covarrubias who, when he was invited by the 17th century Bishop of Nueva Caceres in Naga City, experienced and received many blessings and miracles from the Lady of Peñafrancia. When Covarrubias was ordained priest, he returned to Nueva Caceres and was appointed Provisor and Vicar General of the Bishopric of Nueva Caceres. In gratitude maybe for his good fortune with the Lady of Peñafrancia and at the same time, since he was then an official of the diocesan Chancery of Nueva Caceres, Covarrubias promoted and propagated the devotion of Our Lady of Peñafrancia, himself becoming involved personally in the celebrations. His efforts and those of the priests after him paid off for the yearly traditional feast day of Our Lady of Peñafrancia observed during the third Saturday and Sunday of September, galvanized the collective piety of the Bicolanos into one united annual celebration which was highlighted by a water or fluvial procession in which the image of Our Lady was carried by various groups of able-bodied men around the circuitous streets of Naga City, and then along the major route of the Naga River before going back to her shrine.

Interior of Peñafrancia Basilica Minore and National Shrine

The Bicolanos, the lofty forebears of the Ivatans, were observed and recorded through the centuries of the Spanish period to have become one of the most devoted and pious Filipinos among its numerous regions. The evangelization of the provinces seemed perfectly matched with the number of conversions to the Catholic fold, for statistics at the turn of the twentieth century showed the Bicolanos' total profession of the Catholic Faith. In Catanduanes, the gem pure-province at the tip of the Bicol peninsula registered an almost 99% Catholic population as recent as the 1980's.

Naga City which is in the center of these Bicol provinces rightfully became the seat of the archdiocese of Nueva Caceres, and therefore the focus and initiator of major and significant religious festivities in the region. From the simple example of Fr. Covarrubias in yearly venerating Our Lady of Peñafrancia with appropriate activities in the city, the September Peñafrancia Festivity evolved into a major religious event which even the government's Department of Tourism has seen fit to be involved in.

Yet, beyond the attention the Peñafrancia festivity generated in the region and in government, what seems most significant for the faithful to remember are the countless testimonies of people, devotees and ordinary churchgoers of having been recipients of the miracles of Our Lady of Peñafrancia, which has greatly impressed the devotion upon the people year after year.

The yearly feast of feasts, begins with a translacion, the transferring of the miraculous images of the Virgin, Our Lady of Peñafrancia and the Divino Rostro to the Metropolitan Cathedral of Naga City for a Novena of Prayers and Holy Masses.

Altar of Peñafrancia Basilica Minore and National Shrine

The translacion which begun in 1885 is considered to be a very important part of the celebration, not to say festive and colorful. The andas of the Lady is borne on the shoulders of her male devotees, called the voyadores, all along the route of the procession.

In the afternoon of the 8th day of the Novena, a fluvial procession in the Naga River caps the feast. The image of Our Lady is returned to her sanctuary via the Naga River, on board a pagoda decorated with fresh flowers and colorful papers, accompanied by musicians, the religious, priests and seminarians. As the pagoda maneuvers, other bancas manned by boatmen and male devotees sail along with it until the landing site where by tradition, the Archbishop of Nueva Caceres meets the Images and leads them to the Basilica Minore of Our Lady of Peñafrancia for a solemn concelebrated Pontifical Mass

To the unexposed and less than religious, the sight of the Pagoda being escorted by hundreds of men and thousands more following in ascent while both sides of the Naga River filled with devotees waving their handkerchiefs and shouting, Viva la virgen! may seem strange and the veneration fever, seemingly too emotional, almost pagan. Nobody can explain the intensity of feelings for Our Lady of Peñafrancia during the week of her feast day, except to accept that it is pure love of the Blessed Virgin Mother, in the Image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia which has made her devotees keep up their yearly panata. People like to believe with little explanation that certainly, a devotee returns because almost always, Our Lady returns the favor of the petitioner.

Today, the Peñafrancia Basilica and National Shrine at Balatas, Naga City, is the home and permanent residence of the venerable original Image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia and the Divino Rostro which were previously kept in the Shrine of Peñafrancia located at Peñafrancia Avenue, Naga City. This original Shrine of Our Lady is now a parish dedicated to Our Lady of Peñafrancia and has the replica of the original image of Ina.

Excerpt from Shrines, Incarnating Christ Today. St. Paul Philippines, 2004. Photos from members.virtualtourist.com and flickr.com.

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