Christianity’s arrival in PH – boon or bane?
Any historical review would illustrate the seismic shifts the Philippine Catholic Church has been undergoing, including the earth-shaking scandals into which she has been dragged repeatedly.
Does it matter to me that the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has declared 2018 as the “Year of the Clergy and the Religious” as part of the nine-year preparation for the 5th centennial, or 500 longs years of the Christianization of the Philippines?
The predecessors of the Filipino clergy and consecrated persons today are the Spanish friars of old. And it appears that the arrival of Spanish clergy and consecrated persons 500 years ago was a double-edged sword, a blessing and a curse in one, so it has been said.
Going back to 1521
Father Pedro de Valderrama was the only priest in Magellan’s crew, who was given the task of celebrating the first Holy Mass on the shores of Limasawa, an island at the tip of Southern Leyte.
Can history now claim that Limasawa Island is the birthplace of Christianity in the Philippines on the Easter Sunday of 1521 (Ambeth Ocampo, National Historical Institute), just as the now controversial Jerusalem is universally acknowledged as the birthplace of Christianity on the occasion of Pentecost or the Coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles (Acts 2:1–31)?
The actual period of evangelization began upon Miguel López de Legazpi’s arrival in 1565 – about 40 years after the first Holy Mass. Historians describe the rapid conversion of the whole Philippine archipelago, de Aparri hasta Jolo, as a phenomenon short of a miracle.
One explanation offered as to why our ancestors, except for the Igorots of the Cordilleras and the Muslims of Mindanao, had at once believed in Jesus Christ and His Gospel was the record of good personal examples of the early Spanish clergy and consecrated missionaries (cf. Felix de Huerta, 1865; Saderra-Masó, 1924). Really?
Walking messengers of God
Fifty years after Legazpi’s arrival in 1565, the Spanish King could not believe that only a few soldiers were required to keep peace and order in the entire archipelago of more than seven thousand islands.
An old viceroy who served as a functionary in the Philippines was wont to say: En cada fraile tenia el rey en Filipinas un capitan general y un ejercito entero. “In the Philippines, the King in each friar had a general and his entire army” (Pablo Fernandez, OP, History of the Church in the Philippines, 1971).
Did the early Filipinos believe because they saw the good examples of the early Spanish missionaries? Did our ancestors believe because both the Message (the Gospel) and the messengers were good? That the clergy and consecrated persons were credible educators of the poor and protectors of the indios against the abuses of civil officials and other peninsulares?
It seems the so-called Christian praxis, coupled with Biblical stories, was the best teacher of all. The Mahatma himself once adhered to the powerful principle: “An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.”
Of course, it’s admitted and admitted humbly that there were Spanish friars who tarnished the distinction of the great God-filled missionaries. Poor human nature, that’s what it was.
Otherwise, a hundred other Spanish clergy and consecrated persons such as Andres de Urdaneta, Juan de Plasencia, Martín Rada, Domingo de Salazar, Miguél de Benavides, and Pedro Bautista were like the Twelve Apostles after Pentecost – audacious, unstoppable and credible.
Historical record and the vibrant Catholic parishes and in every nook and corner of the islands appear to validate this: the Catholic Church conquered the Filipinos with kindness, mercy, liberating truth and grace.
19th century frailocracia: Boon and bane
However, Jose Rizal blamed the tyranny and abuses of the friars as the cause of the economic misery and socio-political backwardness of the Filipino (see Noli me tángere, published in Berlin: Berliner Buchdruckerei-Actien-Gesellschaft, 1887, pp. 272). Students today are even taking his novel as Gospel truth.
Almost at the same time, a pamphlet entitled Fray Botod (Hiligaynon word for a big-bellied mortal, empty-headed, vituperative and licentious) became the Ilonggo propagandist Graciano López-Jaena’s most insulting caricature and mockery of the Spanish clergy. He wrote it when he was 18 years old.
Another propagandist was Marcelo H. Del Pilar of Bulacan, who just abhorred the friars and vowed all his life to destroy frailocracia by all means. Marcelo like the Voltaire of France declared death on the religious orders and, as a provocateur par excellence, organized the protest march of 1888 and petitioned then Governor-General Emilio Terrero y Perinat for the expulsion of the friars from the Philippines and the Filipinization of parishes.
But God writes straight with crooked lines
“Eeeeets a puzzlement,” King Mongkut in the musical “The King and I” said in a baritone voice. More than a puzzlement, it’s a paradox.
For how can we reconcile the two seemingly opposite aspects so innate in the Philippine Church, sanctity and sinfulness, her being earthly and heavenly, holy and unholy, at the same time?
Every Filipino by this time can almost touch and smell the sebaceous dirt in the engine room of the Barque of Peter, which Ronald Knox once alluded to.
As we hear the various narratives of ugly details of Philippine Church history, I also pray that we be led into some kind of the “purification of memory,” a term I borrow from Pope Saint John Paul II, so that at the end of the day we are liberated from all forms of resentment and heavy-in-the-heart historical baggage.
The solemn assurance is given to every Filipino faithful that the Barque on its mighty voyage, though battered by ferocious waves and winds in the open seas, which brought the Spanish clergy and consecrated persons to us beginning in 1521, indeed brought Christ’s visible and historical presence in the land I love so dearly—the one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church!
Thanks to the Spanish clergy and consecrated persons of old.
Jose Mario Bautista Maximiano is a Catholic writer, educator, management consultant, and motivational speaker. He is author of Pope Francis, the Catholic Bishop, and the Priest (Cardinal Sin Catholic Book Awardee for 2015). His latest oeuvre is entitled The Church Can Handle the Truth (2017)