“Family, fellowship, fate and freedom.”
On March 17 this year, the Catholic Church in the Philippines will celebrate 500 years since the arrival of Christianity on its shores. The Augustinian priest Pedro de Valderrama served as chaplain to the Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who believed that one can reach the famed Spice Islands in the east by sailing westward. The circumnavigation of the world will open a new trading route for Spain, a theory that until then has yet to be proven.
But with the Spanish fleet came the Christian faith. On March 31, 1521, Easter Sunday, the first Catholic mass was celebrated on the island of Limasawa, marking the birth of Christianity in these islands.
Half a millennium later, the Philippines is now the third-largest Catholic country in the world, with Filipinos comprising more than half the Catholics in Asia.
Despite having received Christianity from Spain 500 years ago, the Philippines has embraced and nurtured the faith as its own, with tens of millions of overseas Filipinos employed in almost every country in the world – bringing with them their deep devotion and loyalty to the Catholic faith.
It cannot be denied that while the Catholic faith was brought by explorers who were bent on expanding Spain’s colonial power, the early Filipinos received it as a gift – and not merely as a sad consequence of colonialism.
The same gift of faith eventually enriched our Filipino way of life. Not only did the Spanish missionaries teach the Catholic religion, but they also established an educational system to operate up to this day. The missionaries introduced new crops and agricultural methods. They supervised the building not only of churches but towns (bajo de las campanas) as well as roads and bridges. It was much due to their efforts that the many islands and barangays of this archipelago gradually grew into a single nation.
This gift that is Christianity eventually took root in our Filipino culture and contributed significantly in shaping our Filipino identity and providing a uniquely Filipino expression of the Catholic faith – finally showing that to be more deeply Christian is to be more truly and authentically Filipino.
The “Filipino way” of being Catholic can be simply summarized into four distinctive characteristics: Family, fellowship, fate and freedom.
First, the Filipino expression of Catholic life is root in our strong family connectedness. For millions of Filipinos, Catholicism is their religion at birth, and it is within the family that this faith is nurtured and grows into maturity. Likewise, it is by the way of the Filipino family that our Catholic faith contributes not only to our sense of self-identity but also to a fuller understanding of our filial relationship with God – as expressed by the familial ways by which we address Christ, Mary, and the saints – and even through our nation’s strong devotion to the Santo Niño, a timeless reminder that we are all children of God.
Second, fellowship is an important part in the way Filipinos live the Catholic faith – in the liturgy and prayer as well as in songs and devotions. In fact, Filipinos find value in welcoming guests into their homes; this usually culminates in breaking bread around the family table. Thus, many life events such as births, marriages and deaths are marked with a special meal shared with family and friends and from the viewpoint of faith, this fittingly parallels with the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Mass.
Third, this willing resignation to fate is best reflected in the Filipino expression, “Bahala na” – or literally, it is up to God. For this reason, Filipinos are patient and forgiving, resilient and forbearing. This explains our devotion to suffering Jesus Nazareno – an icon of a healing and forgiving Savior who understands our weaknesses, our failures, our feelings of depression, fear, and loneliness.
Lastly, the Catholic Church in the Philippines has constantly accompanied the Filipino people in their struggle for freedom and nationhood. Thanks to the insistence of Manila’s first bishop, Domingo Salazar who defended the rights of the Filipino natives, our country was spared from the scourge of human slavery. Among the first heroes of the Philippine Revolution were the martyred Filipino priests – Jose Burgos, Mariano Gomez, and Jacinto Zamora. In 1986, the Church, led by Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, played an important role in the restoration of democracy, with priests, nun,s and seminarians joining the crowds in EDSA. Today, the Church remains on the forefront of the struggle towards freedom from poverty and illiteracy through its many social action programs, recently the Pondo ng Pinoy which was started by Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales.
Not only has the Christian faith significantly shaped the culture and character of our nation, but it could be rightly said that the Church in the Philippines, too, has contributed significantly to the growth of universal Church.
The largest Catholic university in terms of enrollment and located in a single campus and also the oldest university in Asia is the 400-year-old University of Santo Tomas.
Providentially, a Filipino currently heads the Dominican order of priests who founded and until now administers the university.
The Catholic Church in the Philippines was built through the hard work and undying efforts of the early Catholic missionaries. Five hundred years later, a Filipino, Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, leads the Church’s missionary efforts around the world, in his capacity as prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
While there is a lot to be thankful for in the last 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines, in the same way, we must remain ever hopeful as we look forward to the future. The same Catholic faith that we have received as gift is likewise a responsibility that we need to deepen and share with others through mission. The theme chosen by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines for the quincentennial event, “Gifted to Give” echoes closely the Gospel command, “’What you have received as a gift, give as a gift! (Matthew 10:8)”
“We are gifted to give and live our gifts, mercy, compassion, justice and peace. The sign our world today will come to believe, is the love we have for one and all.” – We Give Our Yes, Official Mission Song for the Quincentennial Anniversary of Christianity in the Philippines
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