The Catholic Church in the Philippines formally inaugurated its year-long celebration of the quincentenary of Christianity on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021. The theme of the celebration “Gifted to Give” aptly expresses the grateful response of Filipino believers for the gift of the Christian faith first planted on its soil in the island of Limasawa, Leyte, on March 31, 1521. As Pope Francis has urged the Filipinos in his homily in Rome for the occasion, “Never be afraid to proclaim the Gospel, to serve and to love.”
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and former archbishop of Manila, has said that the gift of the Christian faith in the Philippines, passed down through generations, has shaped the Filipino culture and the Filipino nation. This same faith is now being shared by countless Filipino missionaries, migrants, and their families where they are found in the world. The Philippines has the third largest number of Catholics in the world today, and there are 2.9 million Filipino American Catholics.
The missionary spirit of the Filipino people is best exemplified by the heroic examples of two Filipino saints, Lorenzo Ruiz and Pedro Calungsod, laypersons who died as martyrs in other lands.
Lorenzo Ruiz, an altar server and calligrapher of Binondo Church in Manila, fled with the Dominican missionaries to Japan to escape a false charge. He was martyred in 1637 by the Tokugawa Shogunate, then the feudal military government in Japan, for refusing to renounce his faith.
Three hundred years later, Lorenzo Ruiz was canonized as the first Filipino martyr and saint. Recalling his words, San Lorenzo said he would rather die “a thousand deaths” than deny the Savior. He is the patron saint of Filipino youth, the Philippines, and overseas workers. His feast day is on the 28th of September.
Pedro Calungsod, the second Filipino canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, was a young missionary catechist who died a martyr in 1672. This was four years after he journeyed with Father Diego Luis San Vitores and other Jesuits to evangelize the Chamorros, the indigenous people in Guam. After rumor spread that the Jesuits’ baptismal water was poisoned, the Chamorros turned against the missionaries. Calungsod was struck by a spear in the chest as he shielded Father Diego from two native attackers. Nearly three-and-a-half centuries later, Calungsod, the first martyr of the Visayas Islands, was proclaimed a saint.
At Calungsod’s beatification, Pope John Paul II remarked that “in a spirit of faith, marked by strong Eucharistic and Marian devotion, Pedro undertook the demanding work asked of him and bravely faced the many obstacles and difficulties he met.” San Pedro Calungsod’s feast day is on April 2. He is the patron saint of Filipino youth and a prime example of a catechist willing to risk it all to bring the message of Jesus Christ to the world.
The gift of faith that the Filipino people received and nurtured down the centuries has borne its most sublime fruit in the martyrdom and sainthood of those two laypersons, San Lorenzo Ruiz and San Pedro Calungsod.
On Saturday, September 18, 2021, the different Filipino communities of the Archdiocese of Washington, together with the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Cultural Diversity/ Asian and Pacific Island Affairs will celebrate the 500 Years of Christianity in the Philippines and the feast of San Lorenzo Ruiz.
Everyone is welcome to attend this event, which will take place at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, beginning with a procession at 9:30 a.m. followed by the praying the rosary at 10 a.m. and a Mass at 10:30 a.m. celebrated by Washington Auxiliary Bishop Mario E. Dorsonville.
The Catholic Church in the Philippines prays that the historic celebration of 500 Years of Christianity may foster a renewed commitment and enthusiasm among the Filipino people to continue gratefully to live out and share this precious gift of faith wherever they may be in the world.
(Rosemarie A. Ong is the Human Resources manager of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. She holds a doctorate in education from George Washington University’s Executive Leadership Program, and a Masters in Human Resources Management from The Catholic University of America.)