What will we celebrate in 2021?
The short answer is, “the 500th anniversary of Christianity in the Philippines”. Cynics, however, deny that this is worth celebrating. They point to what they have been told to be the track record of the Catholic Church in the Philippines: evil friars during the Spanish occupation, as well as real, present- day versions of the corrupt, oppressive, and lustful clergymen who were the villains of Jose Rizal’s novels. Hard-core cynics even blame the Catholic Church for everything that is going wrong in the Philippines, from widespread poverty to the traffic along EDSA.
Even devout Catholics sometimes acquire an inferiority complex about their religion because of these allegations. They have been taught in history classes, so they must be true. But do they present the whole picture?
The point of this article is not to deny that members of the Church—both hierarchy and laity—have committed atrocities. Atrocities happened and still happen. They caused—and still cause—grave problems in the Church. The first step to solving problems is to recognize that they exist, and Catholics do the Church no favor by whitewashing the errors of her members.
But in any picture, the lights are as important as the shadows. An accurate depiction of reality needs both. In our well-intentioned desire to honestly assess the role that the Catholic Church has played in Philippine society, we often fixate on the shadows at the expense of the lights.
Most are familiar with Padre Damaso, Padre Salvi, Padre Sybila, and Padre Camorra, the degenerate fictional Spanish friars from Rizal’s novels. Doubtless, they have real life counter-parts.
But how many are aware of the real-life friars Fr. Martin de Rada, Bp. Domingo de Salazar, and Fr. Miguel de Benavides, who fought for the rights of the natives in the Philippines and even questioned the legitimacy of the Spanish occupation of the Philippines? How many have heard of Fr. Juan de Plasencia, who documented Tagalog customs and language, most likely in response to conclusion of the Manila Synod of 1582 that the natives in the Philippines have the right to govern themselves according to their local customs? Of Fr. Francisco Manuel Blanco, who painstakingly documented Philippine flora? Of St. Ezequiel Moreno, who founded Puerto Princesa City in Palawan? Could anyone deny, upon learning of their achievements, that they had some contribution to development?
I myself have not heard these names in history classes in school. I only learned about them later, through my personal readings.
For the rest of this year, this Faith and Culture column will discuss more about these names and many others, within the limited space that is allotted for this column. Hopefully, by the time April 2021 comes, readers of this column will be convinced that, indeed, the 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines is something worth celebrating.