501 Years of Christianity: A Lenten Reflection, Part 1 of 2



March 31, 2022 is the 501st year since that first Easter Sunday Mass was held on Limasawa Island, where a wooden cross was planted signifying the arrival of Christianity. Two days before, Magellan observed Good Friday by having a blood compact with Rajah Kulambo and feasting with pork and tuba (local wine). Rajah Kulambo and his brother Rajah Siagu and Magellan’s crew attended the highly celebrated Mass before proceeding to Cebu on the way to the Moluccas Spice Island.


Two weeks later, Magellan ordered Fr. Valderrama held another service after the blood compact with Rajah Humabon of Cebu was consummated. In a show of force, Humabon, his wife Hara and several mistresses along with some 400 hundred followers kissed the Cross, partook in the Liturgy, baptized, given Christian names; thus paving the way for the birth of Roman Catholicism. He even accepted an image of Santo Nino (Child Jesus).


In good faith, Magellan followed through with his promise to defeat Humabon’s longtime nemesis, Datu Lapulapu of Mactan. Magellan’s stay and existence was cut short by the local rebel. Datu Humabon would later trick the rest of Magellan’s crew to come to a despedida (farewell) party where some of the men were poisoned or killed for their failure to deliver on the agreement.


Lapulapu is a constant reminder that the Battle of Mactan was a reflection of his defiance and non-conversion to the new faith or religion. His epic battle was also a portent of the rest of the country’s struggle to be freed from the abusive colonizers.


Datu Humabon’s treachery brought to question his sincerity to genuinely embrace Christianity. And for that matter, successful conversions throughout the archipelago cannot be viewed in terms of doctrinal persuasion alone and should be interpreted in a much broader term given the socio political situation of the time. Humabon’s immediate need was temporal and not the ultimate salvation of his soul. Humabon died later that month not knowing where his soul was headed in the great beyond.


One could look at the first Latin sermon delivered by Augustinian Fray Pedro de Valderrama during the Easter Mass as the beginning of missionary teaching in the Philippines albeit with ephemeral effect. Spread of Catholicism throughout the island began in earnest when the Spanish explorer Miguel Lopez de Legazpi came 40 some years later along with more personnel and following a similar strategy the Spaniards employed in New Spain (Americas) where missionary teaching was reinforced by coercion and resettlement during the period of colonization.


The significance of the instantaneous conversion of locals to Catholicism, however, defies logical progression. Conversion did not always mean actual apostasy but an opportunity to improve their lives or accumulate power.


Back then, the state and church functioned as one cohesive system. Spanish authorities created very definitive geographical boundaries called pueblos or towns to resettle converted populations into it for ease of evangelization, flow of commerce and tax collection. Admittance to the Spanish pueblo, however, came with a caveat – conversion to Roman Catholicism. People who did not want to submit to exorbitant taxation or refused conversion to the new religion, fled to the mountains. They were branded as cimarrones or remontados along with the indigenous peoples who lived there.


The Spanish pueblos were beneficial to the locals because of protection afforded by local colonial administration. The pueblos also offered employment to the locals through patronage and trade of their products. Of course being in the pueblo came with a social status symbol of being civilized, educated, and modernized.


In rural Philippines, Christianity arrived much later without the requisite instruction manual – the conduct of catechisms or formal religious instructions. Pueblos were conceptualized similarly throughout the Philippines where the Church’s Liturgical Calendar drove activities in the town and nearby localities and was the primary source of evangelization during days of obligation and special occasions.


Since many of the locals were either farmers or fishermen, they lived far from the pueblo and could not keep up with the Church’s Liturgical calendar. Hence, the friar or priest would have to make separate trips (visita) to carry out their missionary tasks. If on a regular Sunday, the cura would conduct the Latin Mass in full religious regalia, think of what that visit in far flung barrios would be like using a portable altar.


Thus, the situation created different levels of understanding between the folks from the banwaan (pueblo/town) and the taga-oma (barrio folks) about their Catholic faith. Even when bamboo/nipa chapels were erected in nearby barrios, the conduct of the Mass would have to be abridged given the small crowd. The cura after all, was still human who tempered his performance based on the size of the crowd.


Consequently, this lack of catechisms allowed the locals to reformulate their practice of Catholicism from the anitos’ and superstition; to the “miraculous” images that the clergy brought and introduced without affecting the radical transformations the friars expected. In the context of religious conversion from the world of idolatry, one must examine the interplay between the universalistic conceptions brought by the mendicant friars to 16th century Philippines and their transformation by the friars to suit local modes of explaining the diverse phenomena of anitos and superstition.


Since the administration of the Philippine colonial rule was through the Viceroy of Mexico, it is conceivable that the missionaries have tempered their conversion strategies based on their experiences with the locals there (like the Indians, Incas) who were similarly into “paganism” and superstitious practices. It is hard to comprehend such conversion without understanding what it would take for a native to ditch their God for an encounter with the true God that the friars were preaching.


From the point of view of the locals and indigenous peoples, the religious images and metal crucifixes were no different than the stones or wooden images they possessed, though shaped differently albeit less appealing, but to whom they previously relied or recognized as the one who is able to help them and lead them through various religious rites. Although they were considered already “converted” by being a subject of colonial rule, nobody was around at their remote locations to police their spiritual practices.


Such caveats to indigenization were not lost upon the clergy. They were acutely aware of the “imperfect” or “incomplete” conversions but they were hampered by lack of manpower and resources. Often, clergy settled for semi-adherence to the faith through sacramental participation (going to church on Sundays and special occasions, baptisms, funerals) because of their inability to stop or hinder the natives’ reverting back or with their spiritual ways of anitism and animism. The impossibility of “properly” converting locals whose families were scattered throughout mission areas that were reachable only by foot or primitive modes of transportation (animals), was an added burden.  


Overtime, such strategies became the norm and practices became traditions. (To be continued)