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500 Years of Christianity: Battle of the Sword and Cross in Mactan, Part 4

“I learned more about Christianity from my mother than from all the theologians in England.”

John Wesley

The Philippine Roman Catholic Church should take some responsibility for the current state of affairs in the country. Yes, politics played a major role in ruining, err, running the country; but it is no coincidence that the percentages of Catholics and the poor in the Philippines dovetails neatly. But, if the past is the barometer, the Church’s approach to the quincentenaries’ milestone will be about remembering and celebrating minus the hard soul searching.

It is important to look back to understand the Catholic Church’s history in a contextual way to help the faithful further mature in faith, overcome fears and help exorcise the ills of the past. It will be painful and could even invite resentments but it is a necessary evil that devout Filipinos can handle.

Despite being the only Christian country in Asia, Filipinos’ understanding of their faith is confusing at best. Filipino Catholicism is laced with many of the beliefs and practices of major philosophies in China: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Mind you, Chinese Filipinos have a very small share of the population, yet their influence transcends society.

Think of the deeply religious who believe in Feng Shui that by simply rearranging the furniture, will bring in wealth. That offering food on the altar or tomb will nourish the dead. Or better yet for other Catholics, praying to win the lottery or jueteng is praying for deliverance from poverty. How about crediting an animal as the lucky charm (swerte) that brought blessings or luck? Or, crediting God for her son’s passing a licensure test? What gives?

As embellishments to everyday living to punctuate the tedium of Catholic life, commercial establishments and houses that cultivate vices (bars, gambling dens, strip clubs and nightclubs) mushroomed within the reach of church bells ringing. If patronage of such places was meant to test the durability of one’s faith at the altar of capitalism, many will flunk but will still unabashedly charge their salvation to God’s will.

In towns where life is slower and easier, the local sari-sari store becomes a venue for lively discussion on politics, religion or gossip. Do Filipinos leave their Catholic suits at home before engaging in such acts or do they proudly wear them? Particularly on religion, most rural folks in the olden days relied on what parents said so, nothing biblical; about salvation, confession and communion, heaven and hell, sins, even what to wear on days of obligation. Thus, the lively ad infinitum arguments on whose mommas said the best.

When the Americans came, Protestant teachers and ministers were part of the invading armada to “Christianize” Roman Catholic locals. The Puritans believed that locals were into paganism and idolatry because of the beliefs and practices they have inherited from their Catholic colonial masters. Consequently, it heralded another religious proxy war for Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation fight with the Catholic Church. The doctrinal disputes and sale of indulgencies to pardon sins among other things Luther fret about, began to confuse the local folks.

While the Muslims stuck to their Islamic beliefs and practices, Filipino Christians were left to fend for themselves spiritually, if they wanted to dive deeper into their faith. For centuries, Filipinos were told to sit straight and to just listen to the parish priest for religious understanding. The elites who were able to attend Catholic private schools (Ateneo, UST, USI in Naga, etc.) fared better than the rural and urban poor in theological understanding of their faith. Despite following a robust Liturgical Calendar religiously, ordinary folks had understood a veneer of Christian monotheism but were conflicted in practice.

The complexity of religious practice in the Philippines and the ambivalence towards the Catholic faith reflected a larger reality for Gregorio Aglipay (founder of the Aglipayan Church); and later, Felix Manalo (Iglesia ni Kristo), and Eli Soriano (Dating Daan), among others, who directly challenged the supremacy of the Catholic Church in the Philippines. What fueled such doctrinal resistance in the past is the fact that many of the indigenous beliefs, practices, and traditions were altered or totally demonized by conflicting evangelizations.

Their aversion to Catholic teachings worsened towards the end of the 19th century when Filipinos were actively engaged in the fight for independence. What pushed these men to openly compete in the business of saving the Filipino soul? Those who studied abroad (middle class Filipinos) like Jose Rizal who also founded the propaganda movement (La Liga Filipina, La Solidaridad), and those who belonged to the upper class who joined the movement; viewed the abuses of the Church and Spanish authorities with the intellect of someone who had seen the country from the outside.

Their efforts to reform or unite the society failed mainly because the friars were at the height of their power and Filipinos were indifferent. The unhampered abuses flourished because the church and state acted as one. Even within the church, efforts to have more secular priests trained locally became a source of racism that proved fatal for Filipino priests like Fathers Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora (GomBurZa). The powerful message then was that the “Indios” only deserved to wear the see-through barongs and not worthy to hide their brown skin with opaque albeit colorful vestments reserved for European priests.

Jose Rizal was another casualty because of his blockbuster novels critical of the Spanish clergy, authorities, and indolent Filipinos. “Touch me not!” was Rizal’s meme that authorities found egregious. Declared a heretic by Dominican friars and excommunicated by the Church for joining Freemasonry, even a real Padre Faura could not save Rizal. But the controversy after he was executed by a firing squad was whether he died a Catholic. Did he really aped Christ’s famous last words: “Consummatum Est?” Rizal was some 2,000 feet away from the squad. The closest person, a Spanish Jesuit was just to the side of the rifle squad.

Three things here. First, his excommunication was a powerful church punishment propaganda because it heightened fear among those new converts to Catholicism. Two, it warned others that death can be meted by the Church through the state apparatus. Although they absolve themselves of punishment in hell invoking the Pontius Pilate doctrine, by using the locals to shoot Rizal. And third, it was impossible for anyone to hear those last words in an open field much less understand what the Latin words meant.

“Consummatum Est” (It is done) were Jesus Christ’s last words on the cross at Mt. Calvary. No Indio from the audience could have known that, but the Jesuit who had a motive, would have. By attributing those words gave the clearest impression that on his knees, Rizal accepted Roman Catholicism in the final hour. Such utterings could have reassured Filipinos the value of repentance but it also signaled the end of the rebel uprising or rebellion. It was done, finished. (To be continued…)


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