Sunday, January 18, 2015

Pope Francis’ mass in Luneta and the Filipino fear of rain

by Gideon Lasco, MD

The estimated six million Filipinos who flocked to Luneta today to see Pope Francis and attend his final mass in his Philippine visit will surely make headlines as the largest papal gathering in history. But what makes it more remarkable is that Typhoon 'Amang' notwithstanding, Filipinos still came by the millions. This, despite our tendency, for health reasons, to shy away from the rain.

Since time immemorial, rain has been seen as a cause of illness in the Philippines, and hence avoided, whenever possible. Prof. Michael Tan (2008) writes:
We do have a morbid fear of rain, thinking it causes respiratory ailments. Medically speaking, there is no basis for this belief but even physicians have been known to bring out their thick medical books to cover their heads when it begins to shower. The rainy season does result it more colds, not because of the rains but because people tend to crowd together when they seek shelter from the rain…sometimes still clutching the wet books and newspapers they used to cover their heads.
In the clinics, we doctors see this belief being articulated by mothers, who would often blame their children's colds and coughs because they were "naulanan" (got caught in the rain) or even just "naambunan" (got caught in light rain). Patients of all ages might begin their illness narrative by saying that "it all started when it rained last week..."

Outside the clinics, we see this belief manifesting in the way people respond to rain: the use of umbrellas even when it's just 'ambon' (light rain) or even though it's just a very short distance from the car to the door. It is not unusual for people to cancel or postpone events, or defer their plans for the day, because of the rain.

F. Landa Jocano frames this belief within the "hot and cold syndrome" which is a "binary system of opposition that is one of the most important conceptual frames of reference in understanding the man-nature relationship'" (2003:61). In other words, in Filipino folk medicine, many illnesses are explained in terms of the body's exposure to "hot" and "cold". Rains and winds are considered cold. Given this context, he says that the back (likod)
is especially sensitive to the cold. Thus, an overexposure of this part of the body to rain, cold wind, draft, cold water (as among the fishermen), and other similar elements of nature brings about chest cramps, known as punted, colds (sipon), tuberculosis, asthma; pneumonia, and other physical infirmities (2003: 66-67).
It is not just the back that is vulnerable to the cold elements. The bumbunan or the crown of the head is also seen as prone to the intrusion of lamig or cold. This belief likely draws from the fact that the bumbunan - or anatomically, the bregma, remains soft during infancy as the anterior fontanelle, closing only after 36 months. This explains why some people would shield their head from the rain, never mind the rest of the body.

Of course, not everyone holds these beliefs about rain. Personally, I've always defied by mother's admonitions to always bring an umbrella. And, more broadly, rain itself is not just viewed as a bringer of illness, but also a sign of blessing. Greeted by rain as I was about to climb a mountain in Zambales, an Aeta man told me that rain is heaven's way of welcoming a visitor.

But what does the Papal Mass show us, in light of the long-held beliefs that link rain and illness? Two things come to my mind:

First, our relationship with nature - rain, wind, flood, typhoon - continues to define our experiences as individuals and as a nation. It was a typhoon that brought the Pope to the country, and it was another typhoon that came upon us during his visit. That this new typhoon, Amang, comes this early in the year hints at changing weather patterns that we have to deal with in the years to come.

Second, the Papal Mass shows us that many Filipinos can overcome this fear of rain for the sake of something they deem important. In Philippine media today and in the days to come, discourses will doubtless not miss the fact that the Filipinos came in spite of the rain; and that the Pope, too, braved the rain and the typhoon. There will be personal accounts of pilgrims, including the elderly and children, who have endured several hours of rain but found such an ordeal to be worth it, with the fleeting encounter with the Pope a just reward.

Indeed, there are events and commitments that we simply cannot afford to miss, and we must not allow the rain to stop us. The tardiness, the "Filipino time", that is often blamed on bad weather can be dealt with; despite the rain, life can still go on, especially if the government is prepared. This makes me wonder: would government action, too, avert the inevitable cancellation of classes and work that punctuate every year? This would require much more than yellow raincoats - we need flood-proof roads, and better transport systems, to ensure the safety of everyone. After all, it is entirely understandable for people to be late if there is an actual flood between them and their destinations. And rains and floods pose real health threats, not least of which is leptospirosis.

But if we are to fully be liberated from the tyranny of rain and flood, we have to work for a change of attitude towards rain accompanied by the government's commitment to make it possible - and safe - for people to go about their daily lives without being threatened by the floods and the rains.

In our age of persistent typhoons and worsening floods, and of climate change to which our archipelago is particularly vulnerable, perhaps the Pope has given us another timely lesson: Rain is not something to fear, but something we can overcome.

January 18, 2015


Jocano, F. L. (2003). Folk medicine in a Philippine municipality. PUNLAD Research House.

Tan, M. L. (2008). Revisiting usog, pasma, kulam. UP Press. 

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