It’s not a Filipino Ku Klux Klan: A peculiar Holy Week custom in Palo, Leyte

April 6, 2023 - 2:52 PM
Palo, Leyte Penitentes
Members of the Palo, Leyte-based all-male confraternity Penitentes wear the traditional capirote at a Palm Sunday procession on April 3, 2023 at the Palo Metropolitan Cathedral. (Palo Cathedral image)

There is a lot to see at annual Holy Week processions in Palo, Leyte but the conical headpieces are what draw attention to the barefoot men who practice a rite originating from 1500s Spain.

The Palo Penitentes, a Catholic confraternity or brotherhood, don the white garbs every year to dramatize the sufferings and death of Jesus. On their chests is a large cross embroidery and around their waist is a string similar to that which monks wear.

Contemporary observers unfamiliar with the Catholic tradition would associate the pointed hats with the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacist and anti-Catholic movement in the United States, members of whom adapted the wearing of the “capirote” to disguise themselves since the 1860s.

But Catholic brotherhoods’ practice of wearing the garb during Easter and Lenten observances predated the Klan so as not to draw attention to themselves while in penitence.

Palm Sunday procession in Spain
A woman adjusts a “Capirote” hat on a penitent of La Pollinica brotherhood as they wait inside a church to take part in a Palm Sunday procession in Ronda, southern Spain April 2, 2023. (Reuters/Jon Nazca)

This was recently on Reddit’s r/Philippines forum where some users poke fun at the antiquated costumes while others explain their historical and cultural significance.

“I saw a comment [from] someone who’s from Spain saying that the pointy hat helps disguises the height so as to not let anyone have a guess [who] that person is [based] on how tall they are,” a Reddit commenter wrote.

Meanwhile, penitents in Palo, Leyte…
by u/jchrist98 in Philippines

The appeals for understanding are not new, as many who do not know of the Catholic capirote’s origins take offense at the practice as seemingly racist.

Palo diocese’s appeal

The Archdiocese of Palo in April 2021 called on Filipinos, especially Catholics, not to mock the town’s Penitentes.

“Hopefully, non-residents of Palo (especially fellow Christians) who encounter them, especially on Good Friday may be reminded of the Lord’s injunction to pray and offer sacrifices—more so today as we face the pandemic that has been around for more than a year,” the diocese said, as quoted in an previous report.

“The inconvenience of wearing the long and heavy robes in a humid country like the Philippines underlines the sacrificial character of the activity,” it added said.

“The inconvenience of wearing the long and heavy robes in a humid country like the Philippines underlines the sacrificial character of the activity.”

All-male devotees from ages 18 through 70 who call themselves the “Palo Penitentes” are actively involved in yearly Holy Week rites in the diocese.

“As an organized and officially recognized parish organization, the Penitentes of Palo portray the penitential mood of the parish and embody the penitential acts of all the parishioners. Each one does not only make a sacrifice for his own sake but like the Lord himself vicariously suffers for others,” the archdiocese said.

“And so they remind others in the parish (and all the baptized elsewhere) that we have to make sacrifices for the sake of our families, communities, our country, and the world—in short, for others,” it added.