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The beginning of Catholicism in the Philippines

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - March 14, 2021 - 12:00am

There is no question that the greatest legacy that the more than 300 years of Spanish colonization of the Philippines was to introduce and spread the Catholic faith among the Filipino people. An estimated 85 percent of the Filipinos are baptized Catholics.

This year 2021, we commemorate 500 years of Catholicism in the Philippines.

The Catholic faith is more than just a religion to the Filipino. It has become embedded in the Filipino culture so much so that the traditions, beliefs and rites of the Catholic faith have become an integral part of our culture.

There are some seemingly minor habits like making the sign of the cross before making the foul shot that are still prevalent even among the different social classes. Church attendance for Sunday masses and sacramental rituals like baptism, matrimony and extreme unction are often conducted under a festive atmosphere. The Filipino wake, before the pandemic, was considered a reason for major social gatherings. Foreigners are often surprised that during Holy Week most businesses and cemeteries are full of visitors, together with all types of fast food stalls.

I have often been told in many countries where church attendance of local people has declined, that it is the Filipinos in the community who are most active in attending mass and participating actively in church affairs. When one travels abroad, the best way to see the Filipino community is after mass where they congregate outside the church for socializing purposes.

This is the reason why the Philippines is only one of two countries in the world that does not allow legal divorce. Filipino culture cannot be fully appreciated if one does not appreciate the Catholic practices that make the Filipino unique anywhere in the world.

There are many stories about the Catholic evangelization of the Filipino people. There are two important periods that are important to remember. The first is the story of the first mass in the Philippines and the second is the history of the evangelization of our ancestors.

Antonio Pigafetta was an Italian scholar and explorer who joined Magellan’s expedition whose original purpose was to find another route to the Spice Islands. This is the present day Moluccas which is part of Indonesia. The only route then known to Europeans was to go around the tip of Africa and then cross the Indian Ocean towards present day Indonesia. This route was controlled by the Portuguese. The Spanish king commissioned Magellan to go westward from Europe and find another route. Pigafetta served as Magellan’s assistant and kept an accurate journal of the expedition. He was one of only 18 men who completed the trip and returned to his homeland.

On March 16,1521 Magellan arrived in the Philippines when he sighted the island of Samar. He landed on Homonhon Island the following day and the native population came in boats to meet them on March 18. Here is Pigafetta’s account of the first mass:

“Early on the morning of Sunday, the captain general [Magellan]  sent the priest [Fr. Pedro de Valderrama] with some men to prepare place where mass was to be said; together with the interpreter [Enrique] to tell the king [Raha Kolambu] that we were not going to land to dine with him, but to say mass. Therefore, the king sent us two swine that he had killed. When the hour for mass arrived we landed with about fifty men, without our body armor, but carrying our other arms, and dressed in our best clothes. Before we reached the shore with our boats, six pieces of artillery were discharged as a sign of peace. We landed; the two kings [Kolambu and Siawi] embraced the captain general and placed him between them. We went in marching order to the place consecrated, which was not far from the shore. Before the commencement of the mass, the captain sprinkled the entire bodies of the two kings with musk water. The mass was offered up. The kings went forward to kiss the cross as we did, but they did not offer the sacrifice. The body of our Lord was elevated, they remained on their knees and worshipped Him with clasped hands. The ships fired all their artillery at once when the body of Christ was elevated, the signal having been given from the shore with muskets. After the conclusion of the mass some of our men took communion…”

The second story is the start of the evangelization of the Philippines. Historians seem to agree that evangelization did not begin until 1565. Felice P. Sta. Maria suggested that evangelization was commenced by Fray Andres de Urdaneta. In the encyclopedia published by the National Centennial Commission: “Between 1565 and 1570, around 100 natives were baptized through the efforts of three Augustinians, Diego Herrera, Martin de Rada and Pedro Gamboa who had arrived with Miguel Lopez de Legazpi.”

Food shortages in Cebu and hostile natives initially made evangelization difficult. Fray Diego initially felt the Philippines was not worth converting; but, in a report to King Philip, he wrote:

“We have not seriously attempted any conversion work among the natives until the will of the king is clear. Close to Cebu are spacious and rich lands China, Lequios, Java, Japan. We thought we would be ordered to go there and leave these islands which although possessing many gold mines and rivers with gold are worth little compared to those other places. Besides the people here are crude and have no lords. But now that we know the will of the king, we will begin evangelization seriously.”

After that other orders sent missionaries. The Franciscans arrived in 1577; the Jesuits in 1581; the Dominicans in 1587 and the Recollects in 1606. In 1579, the Philippines became a diocese and Domingo de Salazar, OP, arrived in September 1581 and became the first bishop of the Philippines. The evangelization of the Philippines finally began in earnest.

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An invitation for writers of all ages: The Adult series begins on March 20 with Danton Remoto on “Autobiography as Fiction” 2-3:30 p.m. Young Writers’ Hangout via Zoom on March 27, 2-3 p.m. with Divine Gil Reyes.

Contact writethingsph@gmail.com. 0945.2273216

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Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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