Celebrating 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines

Celebrating 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines

In less than two years we will be celebrating the fifth centenary of the coming of Christianity to our country. The question that is being asked is why should we celebrate 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines? Even the president is asking this question.

How this question is to be understood and answered depends on who is asking.

A government leader can regard this as purely a celebration for the Catholic Church which does not concern the State. After all there is a constitutional separation of the Church and State. Christianity is not the state religion and no public funds should be spent for this celebration. Strictly speaking, there is no obligation for the government to join in the celebration – except government officials who are Catholics but they do so not in their official capacity. However, the State has to take into account that more than 81 percent of the population are Catholics. This must count for something. Everyone should remember that Christianity and the Church is an integral part of the history and culture of the Philippines. A government that ignores this celebration is ignorant of the country’s history and the role of the Church and Christianity/ Catholicism. 

Christians of other denominations as well as those belonging to other religions like Islam are not expected to celebrate this event. But in an age of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, any gesture of solidarity will certainly be appreciated and can contribute to healing and reconciliation.         Any big celebration such as the fifth centenary of the coming of Christianity to the Philippines is an occasion for remembering the past. To do so unavoidably re-opens old wounds that may have been forgotten or glossed over. This is especially true because the missionaries accompanied the colonizers. Christianity and colonization came together. Those who remember only the dark side—the suffering and atrocities experienced by of our ancestors—can rightly ask what is there to celebrate?

A balanced assessment of the contribution of Church and Christianity to the country as a whole is needed—this will include both the lights and shadows, the blessings as well as the mistakes and shortcomings.  

There are many blessings to be grateful for these last 500 years. It will take a longer article to discuss in detail the contribution of the Church and Christianity. Let me mention a few in this column.

The Christian faith was a gift which was handed to us by the Spanish missionaries. Contrary to the popularized image of the sword accompanying the cross, the early missionaries represented by Manila Bishop Domingo Salazar were the conscience of the colonizers following the prophetic example of Fray Bartolome de Las Casas and Francisco de Vittoria in the Americas. They denounced the abuses that were committed and questioned the subjugation of the natives. Compared to the harsh missionary practices in the Americas, the evangelization of the Philippines was more systematic and benign. The missionaries learned the language of the natives and adapted the Christian faith to their beliefs and practices. Devotions to the blessed Virgin Mary and the saints as well as the fiestas proliferated. Native lay people were involved in the missionary enterprises.  We should not forget that our Filipino saints—Lorenzo Ruiz and Pedro Calungsod were lay people not priests or religious.

The missionaries introduced new crops and agricultural methods. They supervised in building not only churches but towns (bajo de las campanas) as well as roads and bridges.

The archipelago with many islands and numerous regions and barangays gradually grew into a nation united by a common faith throughout three centuries of colonial rule and missionary evangelization. Their presence checked the spread of Islam (already established in large parts of Mindanao and Sulu as well as Manila) throughout the entire archipelago.

The fictional Padre Damaso in Noli me Tangere does not represent the Church – there was also a Padre Florentino in El Felibusterismo. The nationalist movement emerged among priests like the Gomez, Burgos and Zamora to whom Jose Rizal dedicated his novel. The Katipunan expanded with the support of the revolutionary clergy. The language of the revolutionary movement was influenced by the Pasyon according to Reynaldo Ileto in his book Pasyon and Revolution.

The contribution of the Church to Philippine society during the American rule was minimal. It had to rebuild following the return of foreign missionaries to Spain and the Aglipayan schism. After World War II, at the height of the Huk Rebellion, Church-inspired movements such as the Federation of Free Farmers and the National Federation of Sugar Workers emerged to address the roots of peasant unrest. Following Vatican II, political movements inspired by Christian teachings and led by religious and lay leaders emerged and became part of the protest movements prior to the declaration of Martial Law.

The major contribution of the Church in later decades happened during the Marcos dictatorial rule. The only institution left standing to challenge the regime was the Catholic Church with its prophetic clergy and religious. The CBCP pastoral letter condemned the fraudulent snap presidential election and the EDSA people power event turned an operation against a failed coup attempt into a peaceful, non-violent ouster of the dictator. Religious and lay people faced tanks and troops armed only with rosaries, religious images and flowers. The Church with its teaching of non-violence contributed to the restoration of democracy. It came at a time when many thought the choice was between a brutal dictatorship and the CPP/NPA.

Since then, the Church has exercised a prophetic role – speaking out against a culture of death, the armed conflict, the destruction of the environment, human rights violations, and extrajudicial killings that have claimed the lives of over 30,000 people most of whom are poor.  The Church continues to appeal for a stop to the killings and focus on the healing process. This has earned the ire of the powers that be. Bishops and priests as well as religious and lay people have been subject to death threats and charged with sedition. During this dark period, the Church continues to serve as conscience of society.

Thus, the Church and Christianity is an integral part of Philippine history and culture. It is for this reason that the fifth centenary celebration is not just a Church celebration but deserves the recognition and appreciation of the State and the nation. Broadly speaking, it is not just an ecclesial celebration but also a celebration of who are as a people and nation. For better or for worse, without the arrival of Magellan and the Spanish missionaries to our shores there would have been no Philippines. Probably, we would have continued being separate islands and isolated barangays or part of an expanded sultanate of Sulu or of Indonesia. So, let us count and give thanks for the blessings without forgetting the dark side of the past that continues to haunt the present.

(To be continued next issue).