500TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE FAITH IN THE PHILIPPINES – Nine-Year spiritual journey for the New Evangelization (1)

– Fr Leonard E. Dollentas

In the midst of political confusion, corruption problems and exodus of people to other countries for greener pastures, the Philippine Church prepares to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the coming of the Christian faith in the country. In his Pastoral Visit to the Philippines in January of 2015, Pope Francis, noting the upcoming 500th anniversary of Christianity’s arrival in the Philippines, challenged Filipinos to continue to let the Christian message bear fruit: “It is my hope that this important anniversary will point to its continuing fruitfulness and its potential to inspire a society worthy of the goodness, dignity and aspirations of the Filipino people.”

Though the preparation phase has already been in full swing, the fifth centenary of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines was among the topics discussed during the 116th plenary assembly of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) in Cebu City last year.

In the preparatory phase in 2012, the CBCP issued a pastoral letter on the new evangelization to help prepare Catholics for 2021. The pastoral letter emphasized the “nine-year spiritual journey for the New Evangelization” with a different theme for each year: Integral Faith Formation (2013); The Laity (2014); The Poor (2015); The Eucharist and the Family (2016); The Parish as a Communion of Communities (2017); The Clergy and Religious (2018); The Youth (2019); Ecumenism and Inter-Religious Dialogue (2020); and Missio ad Gentes [mission to the nations] (2021).

It is interesting to note that the final year of the celebration in 2021 is devoted to the commemoration of the “Missio ad Gentes,” or mission to the nations. Filipinos are reminded of their missions to the world, especially those who have set out from home and settled in other countries bringing with them their Catholic faith.

Sustaining the Faith

One of the highlights cited by the bishops in their pastoral letter on the new evangelization in 2012 is the historical accounts of the arrival of the Gospel in the Philippines:

“We look forward with gratitude and joy to March 16, 2021, the fifth centenary of the coming of Christianity to our beloved land. We remember with thanksgiving the first Mass celebrated in Limasawa Island on Easter Sunday March 31 that same blessed year. We remember the baptism of Rajah Humabon who was given his Christian name Carlos and his wife Hara Amihan who was baptized Juana in 1521. Our eyes gaze on the Santo Niño de Cebu, the oldest religious icon in the Philippines, gift of Ferdinand Magellan to the first Filipino Catholics that same year. Indeed, the year 2021 will be a year of great jubilee for the Church in the Philippines.”

The current population of the Philippines is 108,259,278 based on the latest United Nations estimates. The Statistical Yearbook of the Catholic Church recorded that there are more than 80 million Filipino Catholics. The country is the third with the largest Catholic population in the world. In East Asia, the Philippines has the greater number of Catholics compared with other Asian countries (this estimate does not take into account the number of Catholics in China since it is not officially estimated by the Holy See).

The historian Edward Gaylord Bourne (1860-1908) recalled: “By 1605, thanks to the missionary zeal of Spanish Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits… since that date, the Filipinos have been overwhelmingly Catholic in numbers, and they remain so today.”

Sadly, despite its contribution to faith and culture of the Filipinos the Philippine president had criticized the Catholic Church and even called her a hypocritical institution. In contrast, Pope Francis praised the Philippines for continuously sending missionaries to other regions.

Thus, the nine-year spiritual journey towards 2021 will usher the Philippine Church to assume a commitment to “share to other (nations) the Faith we (the Filipino people) have so beautifully received.”

However, it should be emphasized that this commitment is not only for the clergy but also for the Filipino laity, they are also missionaries. An estimated ten million OFWs are residing far away from loved ones and legally or illegally employed in North and South America, Europe, Middle East, Africa, and Asia (International Labor Organization).

The OFW as missionaries

Our OFWs are the new missionaries of the Catholic faith, a statement made by the late Cardinal Jaime Sin of Manila. They are reminiscent of the Spanish missionaries who came bringing the faith. They, in their simplicity, are indeed bringing their faith with them along with their, talents and love for music enthralling the hearts and minds of their non-Christian employers.

The OFWs have filled up the once dormant churches in the United States, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Italy, Spain, Austria, New Zealand, Australia, and many other countries. In fact, they have taken over the pews formerly occupied by Irish Americans at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. The Archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Tagle noted once that “in Brunei, most of the 20,000 Christians are Filipinos.”

Faith Received, Faith Shared

In the past, European missionaries were evangelizing Africa, Asia, and Latin America. For the Philippines, Christianity came through the Spanish missionaries in the 16th century.

Today, it seems, is the time for the “evangelized” to do the evangelization: missionary priests, religious and laypersons from the Global South (an emerging term used by the World Bank to refer to countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean) are coming to the West not only to take care of their own flock but also to re-evangelize and do mission work.

While we can speak meaningfully of the Filipino missionaries in other countries, it is important to acknowledge as well the significant contribution of the Filipino clergy to the wider church.

A good number of bishops and priests coming from the Philippines have been entrusted with varied ecclesiastical ministries. More recently, Pope Francis has appointed Bicolano Bishop Adolfo Tito Yllana as Apostolic Nuncio to Australia. The Filipino-born Salesian priest Fr Pedro Baquero, SDB, and the Vincentian Fr Rolando Santos, CM are now bishops in Papua New Guinea.

The Archbishop of Manila, Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle now serves as the first Filipino President of the world’s biggest charitable organization, the Caritas International. Archbishop Bernardito Cleopas Auza is a Filipino prelate from Bohol who works in the diplomatic service of the Holy See. He has been the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations since 2014. On January 10, 2017, Pope Francis appointed Bishop Oscar Solís as the first Filipino prelate of Salt Lake City, Texas in the United States. He was installed on March 7, 2017.

Indeed, as the Philippine Bishops pointed out in announcing the nine-year observance of the Evangelization of the Philippines, the faith received by the Filipinos has a real challenge to the New Evangelization:

“In the face of a secularism which in some parts of our present world has itself become a kind of a ‘dominant religion,’ in the face of the reality of billions who live in our time and who have not truly encountered Jesus Christ nor heard of His Gospel, how challenged we are, how challenged we must be, to enter into the endeavor of the New Evangelization,” the bishops wrote. “We for whom Jesus has been and is truly the Way, the Truth and the Life—how can we not want and long and share Him with brothers and sisters around us who are yet to know and love Him, who are yet to receive the fullness of Life for which we have all been created, and without which their hearts will be ever restless—until they find Jesus and His heart which awaits them?”.


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