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Epiphany in Lagonoy: The Nationalist Church of Sts. Philip and James

History is never always the better judge. This was the lesson inside the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI).

It was the eve of Christmas: a friend, Kristian Sendon Cordero, poet and filmmaker, and I were in Lagonoy, Camarines Sur. He asked me to come along for his first cursory research on the life of Vicente Ramirez. Cordero’s dream is a film; mine was faith.

It was the turn of the century. The simple histories would tell us Isabelo de los Reyes, intellectual and translator, came back to the country. He is said to have encouraged Gregorio Aglipay, who had served as military chaplain for the Revolutionary government, to form a Filipino church.

In the book, Nation’s Historical Sense and Ecclessiality for Life, the author, Junes Almodiel, articulates the debate about the formation of the Philippine Independent Church. Almodiel points out interestingly how the Romanists, the name given to those who sided with the Colonial Church as opposed the Filipinists, continued to call the nationalist church as Aglipayan. There was a reason behind this and that was to make the PIC a personal crusade of Aglipay. The label came with the disparaging remarks about how Aglipay was merely pursuing his own ambition and that he just wanted to head his own church and get married.

If these rumors were meant to disparage Aglipay and the nationalist Church, it succeeded.

Fr. Ramirez, often described as fiery, was the first ordained bishop of the church that is also known as the Philippine Independent Church.

In the compound of the independent church is the white, humble bust of Ramirez. It is propped on a low pedestal at the left side of the church, and remains a quiet witness to a congregation that has been muted by persistent and cruel colonization. If you think colonization is merely an annexation of territories, think again. Colonization is the sustainability of a mind that reflects blindly and with such obsequious dumbness and arrogance the ideologies of the conqueror whose presence is embedded in this shadowy notion of civilization.

Ramirez ceded the old Lagonoy church to the new church movement of the Filipinistas. Confront this question: who owns the land and the churches and convent? But we know the story, another priest, a Bikolano by the name of Jorge Barlin defended the Roman Catholic Church in the court case that is considered to have made an impact on Philippine jurisprudence. Barlin won.

On November 24, 1904, the American-backed Supreme Court ordered the Iglesia Filipina Independiente to return all the church properties to the Roman Catholic Church.

To many of us, Barlin is the hero. As a result we have a Catholic Church that has no link to the history of battle for independence. As a result, we have a Church that has backed the Regalian notion of ownership, supporting a structured inequality and the poverty constant with it.

That Catholic Church which was victorious in court is now the institutional congregation grappling with its own contradictions. The Church which was on the side of the Revolutionaries became marginalized, mocked and, today, even questioned in terms of its theology.

History has made one church named after the two saints, Philip and James, smaller. But the same history that has relegated this church to the dim background is the same history from which we can ask the liberating questions.

What happened to history? This is the first question.

The question of independence has always been a fuzzy concept for us because we really do not understand the idea of faith and nation. We separate the two as we separate spirituality from cultural identity. We are gross products of this odd bifurcation.

There is a Church and it remains a Church of the elite. It is an extension of a church in a place called Vatican. It is a city that is not ours. It is a city steeped in its own myth. It is ruled by a head, a Pope, whose origin may have been about a disciple but whose directions in histories straddled the vicious murder of other civilizations. In the Papal vaults can still be found the mighty tiara that made this Pope an emperor before he started dispensing infallible soup for the sick soul. It is a church with a sordid past.

I was looking at this humble church and a convent even humbler. I entered the Church and saw icons that were also in my Catholic Church.

But to say that there is not much difference between this church and the wealthier Roman Catholic Church is a grave disservice to what happened in history.

Again, in the book of Junes Almodiel, it is stated how the Iglesia Filipina Independiente was born in the period when resistance was continuing. The proof to this were the many laws passed by the American colonizers punishing acts or intentions that they assumed tended to subvert their occupations. There was the 1901 Sedition Law, which forbade any advocacy for independence. There were also the laws banning the display of the Philippine flag and the singing of the Marcha Nacional Filipina, which we presently call “Lupang Hinirang.”

Stories handed to us and now validated in many studies, including that of Almodiel, present to us an independent church that became ideologically different from the Roman Catholic strand. Its priests allowed the flag to be used as vestment during the Mass. When the Blessed Sacrament was elevated, songs about love for God and country were sung. Gripping and moving was the image of the Host being raised to the music of the national anthem.

What is, however, significant about the IFI is not so much its similarity to the old Roman Catholic rituals but how it decided to retain all the rituals and the sacraments. With the old, original rites not banished, the new independent church was saying the God and the Teachings brought over by the colonizers were not wrong; rather, the complex of beliefs, contrary to what the friars and colonial officials hammered in our minds, could be administered by local priests and teachers.

As with the wheel, there was no need to reinvent the Divine. That is daring independence!

With all the celebrations around the introduction of Christianity, we ignore this artefact of incendiary protest. I doubt if the IFI is even mentioned by Catholic historians as a crucial element in the narrative of this nation. We’d rather focus on a sailor and his factotum who first circumnavigated the world than look intently at this schism, this separation from a Church that continues to suppress our freedom to know freedom.

In that humble church in Lagonoy, I saw the light of Christmas. It was not from the Star that guided Men with Gifts; it was from a Church that continued to tell the magnificent tale of God made Man located locally and conscious of the native desire for true independence. This is a Church that can make us understand what seems to be an exotic and quixotic quest for a Promised Land, right here in our own natal East.

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