Downtown Manila’s “Feast of the Black Nazarene” is an annual event that everyone anticipates. It has become a routine because everything happens as expected – millions of people jockeying to get near and touch the image of the Black Nazarene or at least the rope that pulls the carriage for the religious procession. Some people faint, a few unfortunate ones get trampled to death or suffer heart attacks, petty thieves take advantage of the situation to pick pockets and bags, and so on.

Devotees clamber onto a carriage to touch the statue of the Black Nazarene during an annual religious procession in Manila January 9, 2011.    REUTERS/Erik de Castro

Yes, it has become predictable and routine but it never ceases to amaze me every time I see the outpouring of emotions and enthusiasm of the people to be part of the event. Last January 9, I was at the Qurino Grandstand in Manila as early as 5 a.m. The procession didn’t start until 7 a.m. after a Holy Mass but I had to make sure I would get the best possible position to capture good images of the crowd. That position was at the rooftop of the grandstand.

A man is carried by fellow devotees after touching the statue of the Black Nazarene during an annual religious procession in Manila January 9, 2011.   REUTERS/Erik de Castro

This year, police estimated two million devotees participated in the procession that took the image of the Black Nazarene to the streets of Quiapo district in Manila. It was just more or less a five-kilometer stretch but it took 17 hours for the image to reach the final destination – the Quiapo Church.

Devotees, mostly barefoot, walked inch by inch and their bodies pressed against each other. From my vantage point, it was like a vast sea of people snaking its way at the Luneta Park. Imagine throwing yourself into the crowd without worrying that you would hit the ground. It was almost impossible to control the unruly crowd, as most of them tried to force their way near the carriage. Some clambered to touch, kiss or wipe the image with handkerchiefs or any piece of cloth, while some can only went as far as touching the carriage, or even just the rope that pulls the carriage. They have a strong belief that just touching the image, the carriage or the rope will bring them some kind of luck or miracle.

Devotees carry a cross of the statue of the Black Nazarene to a carriage before the start of an annual religious procession in Manila January 9, 2011.    REUTERS/Erik de Castro

I have been covering this event for 25 years now, but I am still in wonder at such strong faith these people show for the Black Nazarene. It gave me goose bumps as I heard the millions of devotees chant “Viva Nazareno!” while I clicked away. They endured the 17-hour march on bare feet, under the heat of the sun and then a heavy downpour later in the day. Is it poverty that drives them to desperation and do things that they think would make their voices be heard in heaven? On the other hand, there were also people comfortably settled abroad and from the high echelons of society – including politicians and celebrities – joining the event and getting filthy and sweaty as the person next to them.