Gifted to Give: 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines

Myles Cesario ’21
Religion Editor

2021 marks the 500th anniversary of the Christianization of the Philippine Nation. The process began as most Christianization processes did, with the colonization of the native populations to a colonial power; the Philippines’ colonial overlord was the Spanish Empire.

On March 16, 1521, Ferdinand Magellan landed on the island of Cebu. On March 31 of that year, the first Philippine converts Rajah (monarch) Humabon and his consort Harah Amihan were baptized and Christened with the names Carlos and Huana, respectively. The evangelization of the Filipino people would continue under the Augustinian friars, the Franciscans, and the Jesuits.

The first bishop of the Archdiocese of Manila was Bishop Domingo de Salazar. During Salazar’s time as bishop, his synod “condemned slavery and resolved to spread the Gospel using the native languages, a key decision that preserved the local tongues.” The synod also recommended that the Spanish must exert political control to continue the evangelization process in the Philippines as mandated by the pope.

The actual process of Christianization was different than the evangelization of the Americas. The Synod of Manila had made it clear that the missionaries and missions must exercise evangelization and justice using the funds they acquire fairly. The Church promoted a “true inculturation by retaining native practices while rejecting pagan ways,” which is why Filipino traditions like Simbang Gabi (Dawn Mass), and the Pasyong Mahal of Gaspar (Passion of Christ) still exist in the Philippines and are major cultural events.

The religious groups in the Philippines did not only focus on the spiritual health of the population but their physical health and social wellbeing. The friars built roads and bridges and improved farming practices with the native populations; hospitals and schools were built too.

The Augustinians, Franciscans, and Jesuits built some of Asia’s oldest universities, many of which still exist today. One school, the Colegio de Santa Isabel is one of the oldest schools for women in the world. The Catholic Church would be a key witness in many aspects of Filipino life, from the Philippine Revolution to the American and Japanese occupations.

Jamie Cardinal Sin was the Archbishop of Manila and the most senior churchmen in the country from 1974-2003. Leading up to the 1986 People Power Revolution, Sin had seen the corruption of the Marcos dictatorship, and in February of 1986, spoke out against Marcos and in support of Corazon Aquino and Gen. Fidel Ramos.

In response, the Filipino people took to the streets led by nuns singing songs and praying the Rosary, a sight at which no Catholic soldier would dare shoot. History sees Cardinal Sin’s words as a key reason why the Marcos dictatorship fell and democracy was restored. This short example of fighting for freedom is what defines the Church in the Philippines today: the Church is not perfect, but it takes a serious role in the life of its flock.

As Filipinos everywhere embark this year in the celebration of the centennial of their faith, now is the time to reflect on the years and the deeds that the Catholic Church has done for the Filipino people. It is also a time to listen and to prepare for the future of the church in the Philippines and to live by the motto “Gifted to Give.”

Our Lady of the Philippines, namin rena, ipanalangin mo kami!

Photo Credit: Tiziana FABI / POOL / AFP

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