Prayers for a Price

Jan 02, 2003 11:03 AM EST

"God does not care who the prayer is coming from, as long as the person who paid for the prayer is sincere," said Nanette Rosales, 63, a widow who for more than two decades has been praying on behalf of others for a fee.

Since Roman Catholicism was brought to Southeast Asia during the period of colonial Spain, Filipinos have customized their religion with local interpretations. Of them, there are the prayer peddlers who pray for those who don't have time, don't know how, or need more help from people to pray.

To the devout Filipino Catholics, such act is simply un-Christian. Bernie Sobremonte, a researcher at the Archdiocese of Manila, said, "It is laughable, God is everywhere. Even if you are at work, you can still pray. If you don't know the exact words of the official prayer, you can just say, 'Hello, God, can I talk to you?' "

Others believe that the prayer peddlers are conduit to heaven. Alex Magno, a professor of political science at the University of the Philippines, said, "The church is a brokerage to heaven. These women are just a second layer of middlemen."

The Quiapo Church is the only church in Manila, Philippines that is known to tolerate the prayer ladies, yet they were kept at a low profile. The prayer peddlers are not allowed to advertise their sell or approach churchgoers, yet they continue to prosper in the business because they provide valuable social service. The origin of this tradition is unknown.

"I'm asking them to pray for the early recovery of my beloved nephew, who is in critical condition," said Bernardo Barbin, pulling out a tiny picture of the 5-year-old boy from a fold in his sock.

"I can't explain it," he said. "Aside from my own prayers, I need the assistance of others. The more people who pray, the better."

"I know many friends who paid for prayers even though they are devout," said Nita Pitulan, who rejects the necessity for prayer peddlers. "Maybe they believe these women are closer to God because they are in church all the time."

Since the recent bombings in Manila and southern Philippines, most of the customers hoped for personal safety in the midst of the danger.

"All kinds of people come to ask for the bombings to stop and that they not be on the bus when the bombs blow up," said Florando, a mother of three and grandmother of four. Some days we have to pray all day, with only a short lunch break."

To the non-churchgoing families, the prayer ladies offer a guilt-free demonstration on the ritual of their faith.

"If you want to get married in a church, you have to go to confession and get Communion," said O'campo. "Some young people do not even know how to use the rosary. They don't know how to say the Hail Mary. They pay us to do it for them, until they learn how to do it themselves."

By Tony C.
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