500 Years of Christianity: Battle of the Sword and Cross in Mactan, Part 3



“The heresies we should fear are those which can be confused with orthodoxy.”  Jorge Lewis Borges


Christianity has greatly transformed Philippine culture and society over the course of the last 500 years. For over 300 years, the Philippines was colonized by Spain. Despite a small landing force and maintained a small occupying force throughout most of the country, the colonizers were able to subjugate the locals through forced governance. How did they do it?


When Ferdinand Magellan arrived in 1521, he had four ships with a crew of over 200. When Magellan was killed, the crew left and none stayed. They converted over 2,000 locals to Christianity but were left with no spiritual guidance until Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived in 1556 from Mexico. Legazpi would then become the de facto ruler as the Governor-General.


Legazpi only had about 380 crew members, six of whom were Augustinian missionaries. When they eventually landed in Cebu, he established the first settlement and named it “Villa del Santisimo Nombre de Jesús” (Town of the Most Holy Name of Jesus) after an image of Sto. Niño that Magellan left as a souvenir to one of the natives. Some 200 plus more would arrive later that year with more Augustinian, Franciscan, and Dominican friars to further their efforts in Christianizing the locals.


When Legazpi arrived in the Philippines, locals practiced Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or non-believers who believed in supernatural beings. Legazpi’s mission was to evangelize and convert the pagans to Roman Catholicism using the missionaries that came with them and reinforcements that would come later. Still, the numbers were small. With an active resistance everywhere, it was indeed a “miracle” that they were able to convert over 80% of the inhabitants to Roman Catholicism.


But, it was not a miracle. Rather, the feat was following through an established business plan that mirrored their successes in Spain and elsewhere viceroyalties were established. First, they conquered the locals and through blood compacts, they were able to establish governance. They would then convert them and enlist the men as part of the maintaining force. Their staying power was based on perception of fear.


To understand the role of Catholicism in the transformation of the Philippines, the colonial period needs to be put in proper context because whatever religious development was taking place in the Philippines was a consequence of the ruling royalty in Spain. Clearly, the Spaniards did not have enough members of the clergy to evangelize the whole archipelago. So, they haphazardly trained locals to have some semblance of religious order.


The Jesuits provided Catholic education through the elite schools but were clearly not at par with sacerdotal instruction envisioned by the Council of Trent. King Philip II enjoined the execution of the Tridentine decrees on seminaries on the “Indies” but it wasn’t until 1768 that a truly functional seminary was built in Manila but only for a handful of students.


Queen Isabel II took cognizance of the sorry state of seminarians but changes in politics at the local level, and the geographical distance of the archipelago roiled efforts to truly offer quality ecclesiastical education for secular priests. The fight as to who would run and teach in seminaries (Jesuits, Paules, and Franciscans) continued to stifle producing more priests in a true ecclesiastical mold.


The Holy See also got in the act and ordered the separation of the seminaries from the colleges. Finally, the Spaniards left, then the Americans came only to be booted out by the Japanese. Eventually, when the Americans returned, the diocesan clergies ran the seminaries. Between Magellan’s landing and up to this point, spiritual direction was provided missionaries and friars who reflected the attitudes and practices of the time in Spain.


The expansion to the Philippines was part of the Reconquista launched by Spain to recapture territories held by the Islamic Empire. In Spain at the time, the Catholic Church was very powerful and was a government in many ways that dictated the terms of everyday living for Catholics. Although divine in origin, Christianity in outward practice, submits itself to the incidents common to all human institutions and molded from the particular character of the people who observe its rites.


Spain through conquest imparted its own bias as seen in which ceremonies were practiced, through its organization of hierarchies, the style and language which man used in addressing God including the entire system of actions, relations, thoughts during worship. Such worship has gone through its own evolution from its origin’s historical antecedents, political systems, and peculiarities that helped shape the formation of its intelligence.


Greek mythology and arts found its way into the practice of religion but it was the likes of Julius Caesars who mixed politics and religion that unleashed the beast in man. As in the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, the Roman priests were warriors and magistrates. Roman Catholicism at that time allowed itself to alter its national character by external circumstances that led to abusive practices. Such practices was part of the export of cruel intolerance, puerile practices, profane language, blind submission, slavery of the believer that brought Christianity to the Philippines.


The Filipinos embraced the Christian religion with all the passion and sincerity but conflicted by the savagery and violence of the occupiers. To the invaders’ eyes who were descendants of Goths, the unbaptized locals were their enemy who worshipped the devil thus the need for wholesale conversion and to be placed under its jurisdiction. Consequently, Filipinos were forced to be baptized sans the explanation of the origin and design of such rites.


Roman Catholicism built up an oversized role for the parish priest during the Spanish period that carried to this day. Because the church is centrally located in cities and towns, people’s lives were deeply intertwined with the church’s calendar that follows six seasons of liturgical celebrations: Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time, Lent, Easter Triduum, and Easter.


In between daily masses are fiestas of patron saints of European origins (recently added San Lorenzo Ruiz and Pedro Calunsod to placate the locals) and sacramental obligations: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, marriage, and holy orders.


In Spain, the church’s calendar generated part of the wealth that contributed to the aggrandizement of that privileged class, the royalty, who needed the resources to finance the war and occupation of colonies and rivalries of kingdoms. It also financed the secular clergy as a privileged class of its own. Despite their vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience; the friars flouted them. (To be continued…)