Before completing their grueling, first-ever circumnavigation of the globe, explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s crew landed in the Philippines, where a Spanish priest on their voyage celebrated the first Mass on the islands on Easter, March 31, 1521. And while Magellan wasn’t among the 18 crew members who landed back in Spain a year and one-half later – he had died while engaging in a tribal battle in the Philippines – the faith he helped establish in those islands took hold there, and now it has the third most Catholics among the world’s countries, with 86 percent of its nearly 110 million people professing that faith.
And ironically, the Filipino people themselves have also circled the world. More than 10 million Filipino migrants now live abroad in 100 different countries, sharing their faith in the lands that they now call home.
Before and after Washington, D.C.-area Filipino Catholics celebrated the 500th anniversary of Christianity in the Philippines with a special Mass on Sept. 18, 2021 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, they reflected on that heritage of faith, and what that anniversary means to them.
Father Gary Villanueva, a native of the Philippines, serves as the pastor of St. Columba Parish in Oxon Hill, Maryland, where about two-thirds of the 1,600 parishioners there are Filipino Catholics.
“For me, especially as an immigrant to a foreign country, this is the fruit of the seed that was planted in the Philippines by the Spanish during the time of Magellan,” Father Villanueva said.
The priest noted that the two native-born saints of the Philippines – St. Lorenzo Ruiz and St. Pedro Calungsod, lay Catholics who died as martyrs in foreign lands – are patron saints for immigrants and overseas workers. St. Lorenzo Ruiz, whose feast day was also celebrated at the National Shrine anniversary Mass, was martyred while accompanying missionaries in Japan in 1637. St. Pedro Calungsod was a missionary catechist killed by natives in Guam in 1672.
St. Columba’s pastor noted that the Filipino Catholics serving in his parish include military veterans, government workers, nurses and teachers whose families have brought with them a deep Catholic faith from their native country.
And like their patron saints, “wherever we go, we also become missionaries or evangelizers,” the priest said.
Before he was ordained as a new priest for the Archdiocese of Washington in 2020, Father Patrick Agustin grew up at St. Columba Parish in a devout Filipino Catholic family. Standing outside the National Shrine before the anniversary Mass, Father Agustin reflected on that legacy of faith.
“I’m a beneficiary of that, especially my vocation to the priesthood,” he said. “Generations and generations of my ancestors have passed on the faith. I’m so grateful to my parents, who made sure we attended Mass as a family every Sunday. We prayed the rosary together.”
Father Agustin, who now serves as a parochial vicar at St. Martin of Tours Parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland, was among the organizers of the anniversary Mass. He noted that 500 years after Christianity was introduced to the land of their ancestry, “that faith has continued to thrive, not only in the Philippines, but in all the Filipinos around the world. Even if they’ve left the homeland, the faith is very much alive, and it connects us. This legacy of faith is a taste of home. The Catholic faith is ingrained in who we are as a Filipino people, in our devotions, in the way we pray. It is the center of every Filipino household.”
He remembered when as a seminarian studying in Rome, he traveled to Greece, a predominantly Orthodox Christian country, and in the Catholic cathedral in Athens, “there were only Filipinos in the congregation. They were the lectors, the choir, the sacristans. Even in a place like Greece, Filipinos are keeping the Catholic faith alive.”
At the National Shrine Mass, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville, the main celebrant, announced that Father Agustin would be serving as a chaplain for the Filipino Catholic community in the Archdiocese of Washington. Before the Mass, the young priest said, “We hope to continue to pass on the faith we’ve received to future generations.”
Helping to organize the people praying the petitions at the anniversary Mass was Lito Constantino, a 66-year-old Filipino native who joined the U.S Army in 1973, became a U.S. citizen in the mid-1970s, and retired as a major after serving in the military for nearly three decades. He serves at the Catholic community in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where he coordinates the Eucharistic ministers and is also a cantor and member of the choir there.
Reflecting on his Catholic faith, Constantino said, “As a Filipino, it’s really my heritage. It’s part of me.”
He noted that as he and his wife Millie have traveled over the years, they have sought out a Catholic church for Mass, and he said whether they’ve gone to cathedrals in major cities or to little churches or chapels in small towns or isolated areas, “invariably we’ll bump into Filipinos serving the community,” often in ministries at the Masses.
While on a cruise to Alaska, they went to a little chapel, and Filipinos were there, he said. The same thing happened when they went to Mass in a small country church in Kentucky, and during a vacation in Iceland.
“Filipinos are serving the Church worldwide,” Constantino said. Reflecting on how they are sharing their Catholic faith in their new countries, he added, “They want to feel like they’re at home. That’s a way to return back… This may be a mission the Lord has given us.”
Noting the theme of the anniversary year, “Gifted to give,” Constantino said, “We’re gifted to give ourselves to the world.”
That point was echoed by Sister Emily Bautista, a member of the Missionary Catechists of St. Therese, a Filipino-founded congregation, who is in charge of youth ministry and ministry to Filipinos at St. Columba Parish.
“Everywhere we go, this faith that the Lord has given us, we try to live it out through our devotion, through our love for God and through the sharing of the faith we have with other people,” she said.
Janet Harmon, the planning committee chair for the anniversary Mass, is another native of the Philippines. She is the retired director of religious education at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Lexington Park, Maryland.
Speaking after Communion at the anniversary Mass, she praised the example of the Holy Family and encouraged people to recommit their lives to Jesus and to say yes to God like Mary did.
“We join as a holy family” united in faith, she told the Filipino Catholics gathered there.
Helping to bring the offertory gifts to the altar during the Mass was Jaime Ramon Ascalon Jr., the deputy chief of mission at the Philippines Embassy in Washington, who said the anniversary Mass for Filipino Catholics at the National Shrine offered a “testament to their deep faith and devotion.”
Among the Filipino Catholics attending the Mass was Ed Tiong, who wore a traditional barong tagalog formal shirt, with a small map of the Philippines embroidered on it. Tiong works as a medical technician, and he and his wife Maricor participate in the Couples for Christ evangelization movement. They have three young adult children and are members of Corpus Christi Parish in Aldie, Virginia.
“It is never for us to keep the faith to ourselves, but to share the blessings of who we are as Catholic Christians in a world so divided into different spectrums,” Tiong said in an email interview before the Mass.
Also participating in the Mass was Ronnie Chavez, a Filipino immigrant to the United States who works as a high school chemistry teacher. He and his wife Jocybel Lourdes, also participants in the Couples for Christ movement, have four young adult children and are active members of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Lexington Park, serving as lectors and Eucharistic ministers.
Chavez, who is studying to be a permanent deacon, also reflected on the heritage of faith that they were celebrating that day and are commemorating this year.
“Filipinos around the globe, including the United States, are helping in the evangelization work of the Catholic Church. We are returning the favor that was given to us by our European brothers and sisters,” he said in an email interview before the Mass. “How amazing our God is, because that faith that we received some 500 years ago, is still very strong and alive in all of our hearts.”