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Catholicism in Asia

admin / January 29, 2015



The Philippines is “an outstanding country in Asia and this is a special gift from God and a special blessing and also a vocation. The Filipinos are called to be extraordinary missionaries of the faith in Asia.”

These words were pronounced by Pope Francis at the Mass of the Feast of Santo Niño, held last January 19 before 6 to 7 million devotees who flocked to the Rizal Park (Luneta), one day before the Holy Father finished his five days trip to the Philippines.

Metro Manila, which comprises 16 cities and one municipality of the National Capital Region, gave me a tour of the planet due to widely varying architectural styles that I saw.

While walking through some parts of Quezon City I had the feeling of being somewhere in Bangkok, but when I was at the financial district of Bonifacio Global City, part of Taguig City, I witnessed the fast pace of urban construction that reminded me of a mix of Singapore and Hong Kong, with some glimpses of the Outer Harbour New Land Reclamation Area in Macau.

ChurchIn Philippines Infographic

The old town of “Intramuros”, part of Manila City, has buildings of the colonial era quite similar to those the Spaniards left in Latin America. I could also see many streets and avenues with Spanish names scattered throughout Metro Manila, some of which are related to the Portuguese explorer Fernão de Magalhães. In the Philippines he is best known as “Magellan” and also remembered as “Magallanes”.

When he embarked on the adventure where he circumnavigated the world, Magellan was at the service of the Spanish crown. He arrived in Cebu, where he died from the battle with natives in Mactan. Walking those streets and avenues of 16th century Manila, I got this strange feeling that I was not properly in Asia, but in Latin America.

The Philippines is the only country in Asia where most of the population is Catholic (80%), much because of the religious legacy left by Fernão de Magalhães, who upon arriving to Cebu in 1521 persuaded the tribal chief Rajah Humabon and his wife to become allies of Spain. They were later baptized under the Catholic tradition and also received the Christian names of Carlos, after Carlos V, ruler of Spain; and Juana, after Juana of Castille, his mother.

Antonio Pigafetta, Italian chronicler of this Spanish expedition, presented the Santo Niño statue that Fernão de Magalhães brought to the newly baptized natives as a symbol of their new alliance.

After the death of the intrepid Magalhães, another Spanish expedition arrived in 1567 and Juan Camus, a sailor who came with the fleet led by Miguel Lopez Legazpi, found the image that is believed to be the same one the Portuguese explorer offered to the then new allies of Spain. The Santo Niño is now the splendour of the devotion of Catholic Filipinos.

I was witness to this fact during the biggest Mass ever celebrated in the world when I saw in Rizal Park (Luneta) replicas of this image – the original is kept in the Basilica of Cebu – on the hands of tens of thousands of devotees who came from the north, the centre and the south of the Philippines to give witness to their faith.

I also realized that there is no other nation on earth, and even in Europe, that could gather so many people to see the Pope. Moreover, it’s easy to understand the message left by the Holy Father about the important role of the Filipinos in Asia, where the majority of religions or beliefs are Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.

It is well known that Pope Francis wants to visit the People’s Republic of China, which would transform completely the relations between Beijing and the Vatican.

During my stay in Metro Manila I was able to interview the director of Vatican Radio, English Section, and I was only able to get a little bit of information from Seán-Patrick Lovett regarding the Pope’s wish. Nevertheless, I also inferred that there have been official talks between both parties and Beijing will address a formal invitation only after the issues that still prevent the visit are resolved. And that can take really a long time!

How about Macau?
Perhaps inspired by the stay or passage in Macau of extraordinary missionaries of the Society of Jesus (to mention a few: Matteo Ricci, Michele Ruggieri, Alessandro Valignano, Duarte de Sande, Tomás Pereira, João Cabral and Alexandre de Rhodes) I always had this belief that the former Portuguese territory in China could still play a major role for evangelization in Asia.

However, by following the papal visit to the Philippines I had to surrender myself to the evidence that Macau, with just over half a million people, where Catholicism is a minority, is now unable to return to the old times when many Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans, among others, used Macau as a launching point, not only to Mainland China, but also to Japan, to Tonkin and Cochinchina (two ancient regions of Vietnam), to Siam (Thailand) and so on…

The current role of Macau is mainly to build bridges for evangelization in Mainland China, which itself is a huge challenge if we bear in mind the potential that this vast country can offer to Catholicism.