SAN FERNANDO, Philippines (CBS) -- About two dozen Filipinos were nailed to crosses on Good Friday in an extreme display of devotion that the Catholic church looks down upon as a form of folk religion but appears powerless to stop.
Ruben Enaje embarked on his 27th year playing Jesus Christ in the annual passion play in the village of Cutud, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Manila on Friday (March 29).
Other devotees in maroon robes and crowned with wreaths carried life-size crosses under the scorching sun as they made their way along a dusty path to a mound that resembles Calvary, taunted by townsfolk portraying Roman soldiers.
The re-enactment of the passion of Jesus Christ draws thousands of tourists to the Pampanga region, to watch barefoot penitents flagellate themselves and a series of crucifixions on an artificial hill.
The practice, which took hold in the province about 60 years ago as form of religious vow by poor people seeking forgiveness, a cure for illness and the fulfilment of other wishes.
Enaje said he was doing it for his faith, and was not getting paid to get nailed to a cross year after year.
The 52-year-old carpenter began the devotion when he almost died from a fall in a construction accident, and he said he would continue doing it for as long as he has the strength.
"I want our fellow countrymen to not just watch this but to remember our Lord who saved us by dying on the cross," he said, adding that his left hand bled more than usual this year as the nail went in too deep.
Archbishop Paciano Aniceto said the gory practice was a distortion of Christ's teachings of love and selfless service. But he conceded that the church could not stop the ritual that he described as "popular piety".
Such rites had their origins in folk traditions, and San Fernando's Bishop Pablo Virgilio David said such practices were the locals' way of expressing their faith, probably because they related more readily to them than to the more liturgical ceremonies introduced by Spanish priests during colonial times.
Some of the spectators said they found the ritual shocking.
"I find it very controversial. For sure there... in a way I understand it's people. But it's worth coming here and seeing it, seeing how these people dedicate their bodies to the faith for something they believe," said Kasha, a tourist from Poland.
"I think it's crazy, it's something... I don't know why people do it," Belgian tourist Stijn Malfait said.
The yearly spectacle has acquired a carnival-like atmosphere, where vendors peddle ice cream, balloons and cold drinks in an open field where three crosses stand on a makeshift mound.
"You just can see how many reporters are here, how many tourists, how many foreigners like me. And I think it also takes away the original sense, because if it would be original sense, they would keep it smaller and just keep it for themselves," German tourist Julia Rehback said.
The village of Cutud has built the hill with three crosses for the main ceremony with crucifixions also taking place in two nearby villages.
More than 80 percent of the Philippines' 94 million population are Catholic.