500TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE FAITH IN THE PHILIPPINES – The Beginning of Christianity in the Philippines (2)

– Fr Leonard E. Dollentas

Some years ago the US-based Pew Research Center conducted its “Global Christianity” study, to determine the size and extent of the world’s Christian population. With its research center in Washington, DC in the United States, Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes, and trends shaping the world.

Using 2010 population figures, the study determines that the Philippines remains the stronghold of Christianity in Asia with 86.8 million Filipinos—or 93 percent of a total population of 93.3 million—adhering to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The Philippines also ranks fifth in the world, hosting four percent of those 2.18-billion Christians, according to the study mentioned.

The Pew Study further noted that of the huge number Filipino Christians, 81 percent are Catholic, 11 percent Protestant and one percent belong to other Christian groups. The remaining seven percent of the Philippine population is non-Christian. I should add that of the 11 percent Christians adhering to Protestantism, the composition is divided into over 100 denominations. The other 1 percent, described as belonging to other Christian groups, is composed of various Christian sects founded in the Philippines. The latter, while they call themselves Christians and whose teachings are different from Catholicism, do not call themselves Protestants, they are even opposed to Protestantism.  Having preserved such a substantial portion of the population professing the Catholic faith, the Philippines sustains a faith that is zealously flourishing. Hence, while preparing for the Jubilee Year in 2021, which marks the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines, it is but significant to hark back to the beginning of Christian faith in the Philippines.


Before the influence of the foreign religions, scholars believe that the oldest belief of the early Filipinos could include animism (they perceived animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems, tools, and even words—as animated and alive). They adhere to the mythological belief such as the Anito and Bathala, to name but a few.  Bathala was considered to have created earth and man and was superior among the gods and spirits. The early Filipinos offered systematic sacrifices and prayers to appease their deities and spirits.


The pieces of archaeological discoveries comprising ancient Hindu–Buddhist gold statues found in the Philippines lead to the belief of the existence of influences of Hinduism and Buddhism in the pre-colonial Philippines. With this, historians described the ancient influence of the Buddhist Srivijaya empire that ruled extensively the Southeast Asia at that time. The Buddhist Srivijaya empire was a dominant Indonesian city-state that expanded Buddhism from the 8th to the 12th century. As the empire controlled the maritime trade at that time within Southeast Asia, the empire could have had trade contacts with the pre-colonial Philippines. The trade contact could have served as a channel to introduce Vajrayana Buddhism to the Philippines (Munoz, Paul Michel, 2006. Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsula. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet) The oldest monotheistic religion in the Philippines is Islam.  It was brought to the Philippines  by the Muslim traders from the Persian Gulf, Southern India, and the Muslims from the Malay Archipelago.


With the resilient influence of Islam in the southern islands of the Philippines in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the primeval spiritual traditions of the early Filipinos gradually disappeared. Consequently, when the Spaniards arrived in the Philippines in the 16th century, Islam was firmly established in Mindanao and Sulu in the southern Philippines. However, most Philippine communities during this period were fairly small, independent from each other and without a centralized control system. The Portuguese explorer Fernão de Magalhães (Ferdinand Magellan) in service of King Charles V of Spain, reached the Philippines and sighted Homonhon island on March 16, 1521. He dropped anchor at the island of Sugbu (Cebu) and named the islands Las Islas de San Lázaro (St. Lazarus’ Islands) in honor of Saint Lazarus of Bethany. The islands were later given the name Las islas Felipinas (Philippine Islands/Islands belonging to Philip). This name, that has to become the official name of the entire archipelago was conceived by Ruy López de Villalobos in 1543, honoring the then Philip II of Spain. Antonio Pigaffeta, who served as Magellan’s assistant during the expedition, recorded that on March 31, 1521, an Easter Sunday, Magellan ordered that a Mass be celebrated. The Mass was officiated by Father Pedro Valderrama, the Andalusian chaplain of the fleet. Filipino historian Teodoro Agoncillo was certain that this First Holy Mass marked the birth of Roman Catholicism in the Philippines (Agoncillo, Teodoro A. Introduction to Filipino History. Quezon City, Philippines: GAROTECH Publishing 1974) Later that same day Magellan instructed his men to plant a large wooden cross on the top of the hill few distances away from the shore where they had celebrated the Easter Mass. Antonio Pigafetta, who recorded the event wrote:  “After the cross was erected in position, each of us repeated a Pater Noster and an Ave Maria, and adored the cross; and the kings [ the local rulers] did the same.” (Pigfetta, Antonio (2008) [c. 1525, historical reproduction republished c. 1905]. Helen, Emma; Robinson, James Alexander (eds.). The Philippine Islands 1493-1898. Biblio Bazaar, LLC. p. 129. ISBN 978-1-4264-6706-6).


The first group of early Filipinos to be baptized in the Catholic faith was the King and the Queen of Cebu with 800 of their subjects. The King was given the name “Don Carlos” in honor to King Charles V of Spain and the Queen was named “Dona Juana” in honor of the King Charles’s wife. After the baptism, as a gift to the Queen, Magellan gave her the statue of the Santo Niño. Anxious to have more people to be baptized and to pledge their allegiance to Spain, Magellan’s group moved further south. Unfortunately, on April 27, 1521, Magellan was killed in battle with Lapu-Lapu when the former attacked Mactan island.

On 1565 another Spanish expedition led by Miguel Lopez de Legaspi arrived in the Philippines. They burned down the coastal town of Cebu when some resistance ensued. During the mapping operations they conducted after burning down the town, they found the Sto. Niño brought by Magellan in 1521.  A church was built on the spot where the Sto. Niño was found. The church is thus the oldest parish in the Philippines. Many historians consider the facial structure of the statue as coming from Belgium, where Infant Jesus of Prague statues were also common. On its 400th anniversary, Pope Paul VI elevated the Sto. Niño parish to a Minor Basilica. Today, the Filipino people look back to those events of 1521 as the beginning of their faith in this country.


Meanwhile, to grace the celebration of the anniversary of the coming of Christianity in the Philippines, Archbishop Jose Palma of Cebu said that Pope Francis has been invited to lead the 500th anniversary of the beginning of Christianity in the Philippines in 2021. The organizers of the event planned for the main event to take place in Cebu, where Magellan originally brought the image of the Santo Niño, planted the wooden cross and the first baptism was held. Though many activities will be held in Cebu, the celebration will be a nationwide event for the Filipinos.

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