Remembering 500 Years of Christianity in the Philippines

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Remembering 500 Years of Christianity in the Philippines

Imported to the Philippine islands by Spanish imperialists, Catholicism has had complex and contradictory impacts on the nation’s subsequent evolution.

Remembering 500 Years of Christianity in the Philippines

The Saint Augustine Church, completed in 1710, in the municipality of Paoay, Ilocos Norte, the Philippines.

Credit: Flickr/Bernard Spragg. NZ

As I was reading the final papers submitted by the students in the course I teach on world religion, I noticed a common theme when it comes to their appreciation for religion in general, and for Christianity in particular. While most acknowledged the significant role of Christianity as an institution in the Philippines, there was a sense of ambivalence when it came to appreciating the religion’s overall impact in the country, due to the controversies in which it has often been involved, both historically and in contemporary society.

The complexity of these feelings reflects a larger reality in the country as it celebrates the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines this year. The year-long celebration will formally begin on April 4, 2021 – Easter Sunday – and end on April 22, 2022. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) is spearheading the celebration, and has been working on it for the last nine years. Among the events to be commemorated are the first Easter Mass in the country on the island of Limasawa, and the first baptism in Cebu. More than 500 “Jubilee churches” have also been identified for the celebration. Pilgrims who visit one of these churches any time until April 22, 2022 may receive plenary indulgences according to the February 25 decree issued by Pope Francis to the CBCP. Many Filipino Catholics also tuned in to the Pope’s March 14 mass, which was dedicated to the 500-year anniversary of Christianity in the Philippines.

Celebrating – or even remembering – the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines, however, is complex and wrought with controversy. For one thing, the evangelization of the Philippines is understandably tied up with the reality of Spanish colonialism. The phrase “the Sword and the Cross” is commonly used in discussing the Spanish conquest of  the Philippine islands in the 16th century. With Christianity sometimes described by some historians and educators as an instrument of colonialism, it shares some blame for the violence, abuses, and oppression that Filipinos experienced at the hands of Spain.

This narrative still figures significantly today, both in popular memory and formal history education. Textbooks, curriculum guides, and class discussions usually highlight the role of the friars in the pacification of the Philippines, as well as their abuses, especially in the late 19th century. This negative perception of the Church and the friars was entrenched in the popular imagination by Jose Rizal’s path-breaking novels “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo,” which have become required readings in schools and universities. Even President Rodrigo Duterte was dismissive of the commemoration, saying that he does not see the relevance of celebrating an event that led to the colonization and subjugation of Filipinos.

Remembering Christianity’s arrival in the Philippine islands can also be a sensitive topic for segments of the population who have suffered especially because of it. Despite the well-meaning efforts of the friars during the early Spanish colonial period, certain indigenous practices, beliefs and traditions were altered, replaced, or forgotten due to evangelization. One of the most cited issues related to this was that of precolonial shamans called babaylan, who were vilified and disempowered in the process of evangelization. Some feminists and gender rights activists also blame Christianity for the introduction of patriarchal social structures and the prevailing conservatism of the country when it comes to women and gender issues. The Christianization of the country has also led to the marginalization of non-Christian narratives in Philippine history, such as that of Muslim Mindanao.

Certain advocacy groups have also historically clashed with the Catholic Church and other Christian groups over various pieces of progressive legislation. In 1956, for example, the Catholic Church hierarchy and several Christian lay organizations fiercely opposed Republic Act 1425 – more commonly known as the Rizal Law – which required educational institutions to study the life and works of Rizal, particularly the two anti-colonial novels mentioned above. The Catholic Church hierarchy and several Christian groups also lobbied for decades against the Reproductive Health Bill, even after it was eventually passed into law in 2012. Moreover, these same groups continue to represent the most entrenched opposition to the legalization of divorce in the Philippines. Christianity’s involvement in politics has also been highlighted given the tendency of certain politicians to cite Christian values and texts when dealing with social issues, and even when arguing for controversial legislation such as the re-imposition of the death penalty.

As an educator, I believe that one of the greater challenges in the commemoration of Christianity’s 500-year history in the country is the lack of opportunity for most Filipinos to discuss and learn about Church history, something that would make the commemoration more meaningful for many people.

For one thing, an accurate knowledge and appreciation of Philippine Church history can help correct (or add nuance to) some of the common misconceptions about the Church, especially regarding its role in colonization and the abuses usually associated with it. While the negative stereotypes about Christianity have a solid basis, an accurate and a more nuanced study of Philippine Church History could lead to a fuller appreciation of the role of Christianity in the formation of the nation. For example, while supporting the Spanish conquest, the Church has also been at the forefront of fights for justice, from the Synod of Manila in 1582 to the bishops and religious officials who have spoken out against extrajudicial killings of the present day. The Catholic Church and other Christian groups have also been integral in promoting acts of charity throughout history, from setting up hospitals, leprosariums, and asylums during the Spanish colonial period, to providing aid and shelter for typhoon victims and those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Learning more about the history of Philippine Christianity may also provide Filipino Christians and clerics with the necessary knowledge and perspective to allow them to critically evaluate how they have responded (and are responding) to the call of the times. Christianity’s successes over the last half-millennium may offer inspiration and direction for its leaders and believers, but a recognition of its failures might also provide a much-needed humility, and caution against a triumphalist approach to the commemoration.

Lastly, one can hope that the study of Philippine Church history may also invite people to realize that the quincentennial celebration is also an affirmation of how Christianity has transcended its colonial roots, and has been integrated in the culture and identity of Filipino Christians who have repeatedly chosen the faith despite multiple opportunities to abandon it. It is a testament not just to the relevance of the religion, but to the agency of Filipinos in charting their own destiny.