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500 years: Creating a Filipino identity

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - March 21, 2021 - 12:00am

A week ago I wrote a column, “The beginning of Catholicism in the Philippines.” I received several responses to that article. There was one that, for me, stood out: and that is why I am reprinting that response here.

At first I thought it was just a historical correction of some contents of my column. After reading the lengthy letter, I realized that the writer was presenting a different perspective on the same historical period.

In an article, Cambridge Professor Richard Evans wrote: “History only ever involves a selection of what is knowable about the past because it has a second essential quality apart from the search for truth: it aims not just at reconstructing and representing the past but also at understanding and interpreting it. This is what makes history different from chronicle, which tells the tale of the years, marking off events as they happened, but does not try to make any connection between them or attempt to explain why they occurred.”

Here is the letter sent to me:

“The Lord give you peace.

“I am Fr. Antonio Maria Rosales, OFM (Franciscan), 82 years old, 60 years as Franciscan and 53 years as a priest. I have written opinion pieces and such pieces for the Inquirer, Sunstar Cebu…and I don’t remember where else.

“I am writing, kind sir, about your column… You mentioned that evangelization started in 1565, with the arrival of Legazpi and five Augustinians headed by Fray Andres de Urdaneta. Urdaneta supposedly returned to Spain with another friar, so that only three remained with Legazpi. As you mentioned, by 1570, the three have baptized 100 natives.

“It was only in the Synod of Manila in 1581, convened by the newly arrived first bishop Domingo de Salazar OP, that the program for evangelization was decided for all the missionaries that they were to learn and use only native languages in evangelization. This was based on the decision of the Franciscan group (at that time they were called the Discalced Minoras or Alcantrines) who arrived in 1587 (not 1577 as the article has put it). This explains why the evangelization was rather slow in the first years because the missionaries had to learn the native languages first: Bisaya for the Augustinians in Cebu and the Visayas; Tagalog for the Franciscans who were assigned to work in the Tagalog speaking provinces, and Bicol as the whole Bicol peninsula was also assigned to them. And the same time with the Jesuits who came in 1581 and the Dominicans in 1587, and so on.

“The missionaries wrote the first dictionaries and grammars of our different languages, as well as catechisms, devotional books and so on. The Franciscan Fray Juan de Plascencia wrote the  first description of the culture of the natives in 1589, which became the basis of the first Penal Code of the Philippines in 15593. Also in 1593, Plascencia’s Doctrina Cristiana in Spanish and Tagalog and native alphabets was the first book published in the country by the Dominicans.

“The celebration this year of the coming of Christianity is really a meaningful event in history of our country. This is an occasion for us to look back and appreciate the heroic efforts of the early missionaries whose work of evangelization brought the many provinces and regions together to form our country. It is rather sad that many today promote the revision of history and present the Spanish colonial period as mostly negative and the present ills of the country are blamed on that period when we have been freed from Spain in 1898, and we have been under the Americans, the Japanese who continue to blame Spain – and Christianity – for the wrongs that are happening in our land today.

“I hope that our celebration of the 5th Centenary will correct the misconceptions about the work of the Church in the early decades of our history for the healing of our people and help us come together as a united family for the solutions to overcome the present problem brought by the pandemic. May the Lord give us peace.

Fr. Antonio Maria Rosales OFM

“P.S. If you are free I am inviting you to the virtual Recollection on Holy Thursday, April 1, that I have been invited to give to the Diocese of Malolos, Bulacan, 2 to 4 p.m., on Pope Francis’ encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” and the Liturgy of the Sacred Triduum.”

This letter has increased my curiosity about other aspects of the Christianization in the Philippines. Perhaps other historians have the answer and would be willing to share it with me.

Why is Spanish the main language in other former Spanish colonies, but the native languages survived and prospered in the Philippines? If one looks at South America and a large part of North America, there were civilizations that flourished there that were more developed than what existed in the Philippines – Inca, Aztec, Maya – yet the languages disappeared with the coming of the Spanish colonizers. Here, our native languages were preserved and even encouraged, to some extent, by the Spanish colonizers.

The Christianization of the Philippines is not just about the study of religious conversion, but the study of the formation of a uniquely Filipino culture that has survived and flourished through several years of conquests by foreign powers. At the same time it has retained major parts of pre-Hispanic and pre-Christianization culture.

Together, these are the parts that comprise the Filipino identity.

*      *      *

Young Writers’ Hangout via Zoom on March 27, 2-3 p.m. with Divine Gil Reyes.

Contact writethingsph@gmail.com. 0945.2273216

Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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