Christianity: A cross a nation has had to bear
The Artist Abroad

Christianity: A cross a nation has had to bear

/ 08:53 AM March 22, 2021
First Mass in the Philippines. CARLOS V. FRANCISCO

First Mass in the Philippines. CARLOS V. FRANCISCO

NEW YORKThis year marks the quincentennial of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition coming across the archipelago that subsequently came to be named after Philip, a Spanish monarch. Initially, however, the Portuguese explorer in the employ of the Spanish crown named the islands after San Lazaro, as he and his men sailed into the Visayas on March 16, 1521, the feast day of the man whom Christ was said to have raised from the dead. (Magellan was off by a day: March 17 is when Lazarus is honored.)

It was an apt christening, as the men were pale shadows of themselves, more dead than alive, having spent more than three months traveling due west by northwest from the southern tip of South America across the seemingly endless waters of El Mar Pacifico, so named by Magellan as the ships started the interminable trek before the advent of the storm season.


Magellan didn’t think twice about “baptizing” the isles; it never would have occurred to him to consider what the islanders called their home. Homonhon, as it turned out, where he and the men stayed for eight days before heading to Limasawa Island, off the coast of Leyte Province, where, according to the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, the first Easter Sunday Mass was held on March 31, 1521. But that was not the first mass said on Philippine soil; the expedition had a priest with them, so without doubt the latter celebrated Mass during that eight-day layover in Homonhon. And that is the argument of the pro-Homonhon adherents,

Many are there who would celebrate the arrival of Christianity in the archipelago. It’s true that Magellan and his men were Catholic and would have observed the Christian calendar even as they soldiered on, even more ardently given all the many life-threatening challenges they faced on that globe-girdling voyage.

Historically, however, it is inaccurate to say that Christianity in the archipelago had its beginnings in 1521, notwithstanding the Santo Niño statue gifted to Cebu’s chieftain, and what is purported to be the cross Magellan left behind—both now at the Basilica Santo Niño in Cebu City. When Miguel Lopez de Legazpi retraced Magellan’s route and sailed into the waters off Cebu, it was 44 years later, in 1565. The statue was found in a native’s hut. There were however no chapels, no Christian communities and places of worship, absolutely no indication that the faith from Rome had set down roots. Many of the archipelago’s major ports were Islamic, certainly Maynila and Tondo, then two separate kingdoms, ruled respectively by Rajah Sulayman and Lakan Dula. Islam had migrated from the south, where it had gained a foothold as early as 1380, with sultanates in Sulu, Lanao, and Maguindanao dating to the 15th century. Mindoro and Palawan were among the isles that had flourishing Islamic communities.

What we can say for certain is that the 1521 voyage made possible the 1565 trip of Legazpi—the fourth such attempt after the 1521 landfall. It is from 1565 then that the Christianization of what became Las Islas Filipinas began. Whatever views one may have on Christianity in the Philippines, there can be no denying its outsize role in shaping the island nation’s history and culture. There is the glib jest that the Spanish presence can be summed up in three words: fiesta, siesta, and la iglesia. And as I always say, the last named is my least favorite legacy.

I don’t know that I would choose the word “celebrate” to mark the arrival not just of the cross but of the sword, and their intertwined, complex, and painful legacies. (Not coincidentally, the sword and the cross are similarly shaped, the sword being cruciform, and the cross being sword-like.)  Precisely for this reason, “commemorate” is a more fitting verb.  The Roman Catholic Church as an institution has been not just a harbinger of colonialism, but an integral, often violent, and proud enforcer of it.

Through the 1506 Treaty of Tordesillas, Rome divided the world into two, all lands west for Spain, and all lands east, for Portugal, with the proviso that any territory having a Christian sovereign was off limits. Everything else was fair game. The blessings of the Vatican gave the Portuguese and the Spanish theological cover for their voyages of conquest and the brutal but hugely profitable expropriation of non-Christian lands and the exploitation of their indigenous populations, otherwise known as colonization. In this narrative, man fashioned God in his image, and God returned the favor by permitting mayhem in His name. As Voltaire put it, if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.


The spearhead of the Spanish occupation was the friar. Not only was he a man of God, but he also embodied Spanish rule, for the simple reason that he was ubiquitous throughout the archipelago, soldier for both Christ and the Crown. On the whole, while there were clerics from the peninsula who were conscientious and genuinely devoted to the good of the faithful, more often than not the friar was unapologetically reactionary, oppressive, sexist, and racist. You bucked the church’s power at your own risk. Being the supreme civilian authority in the land was no guarantee of safety, as Governor General Fernando Bustamante found out in 1719. He had cracked down on the friar orders due to what he perceived as abuses of their powers. An enraged mob of friars and their supporters stormed the Governor’s Palace, overpowered his guards and killed him.

The most damning portrait of these materialistic men can be found in José Rizal’s two novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. The fictional Spanish padres Damaso, Sibyla, and Salvi are skewered mercilessly by the author. The readers back then would have immediately recognized these portrayals as largely accurate. And evidentiary testimony in 1900, before the Philippine Commission at the outset of the American occupation, bears out the fictional world in the novels.

A Franciscan friar by the name of Juan Villegas catalogued the powers his confreres wielded during the Spanish colonial period: inspector of primary schools; president of the boards of health, charities, taxation, and statistics. He it was who certified the civil status of the town’s citizens. Moreover, the local authorities looked to him for his imprimatur before carrying out their duties “without previous advice, permission or knowledge of the friar curate, since the protection of the latter sufficed at times to defy the anger of the governor of the province and paralyze or evade the action of justice.”


Rizal, in the eyes of the Spanish friars, was Public Enemy No. 1,  an Indio who dared speak truth to power. For that he was executed at 7 a.m. December 30, 1896.

A major reason for Rizal’s anticlerical views was the unjustified garroting in 1872 of the Filipino secular priests Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora, who had advocated that more parishes be assigned to the native clerics, seen by the Spanish friars as a diminution of their power. The three were falsely implicated in a local mutiny and found guilty in a mock trial—foretelling Rizal’s execution twenty-four years later, and for eerily similar reasons.

Rizal dedicated El Filibusterismo to the three men, and famously wrote,

“Without 1872, there would have been no Plaridel, Jaena or Sanciangco; nor would the brave and generous Filipino colonies in Europe have existed. Without 1872, Rizal would now have been a Jesuit and instead of writing ‘Noli Me Tangere,’ would have written the opposite. …”

To be continued

 Copyright L.H. Francia 2021

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TAGS: Catholicism in Philippines, Christianity in Philippines, Philippine history
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