500TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE FAITH IN THE PHILIPPINES – The Filipino Clergy before the Advent of Maximum Illud (4)

Caceres Conciliar Seminary in Naga City – one of the earliest seminaries established in the Philippines during Spanish era that is still standing. (Photo by Fr Leonard E Dollentas.)

– Fr Leonardo E Dollentas

Maximum Illud is an extraordinary document written by Pope Benedict XV on November 30, 1919. This coming November 30, 2019 will mark the 100th anniversary of this document as the first missionary Encyclical Letter.

On October 22, 2017, Pope Francis sent a letter to Cardinal Fernando Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, saying “What Pope Benedict XV so greatly desired almost a century ago, and the Council reiterated some fifty years ago, remains timely.”  Recalling the significance of Maximum Illud, Pope Francis likewise called for an “Extraordinary Missionary Month to be celebrated in October 2019, with the aim of fostering an increased awareness of the missio ad gentes and taking up again with renewed fervor the missionary transformation of the Church’s life and pastoral activity.”

This article will attempt to explain the context of the training and ministry of the Filipino Clergy during Spanish Colonization and before inculturation (that includes development of domestic clergy) was introduced in Maximum Illud.

The Training of Filipino Priests


One of the questions faced by the first missionaries in the Philippines at the onset of the Spanish colonization was the training of the indigenous clergy. The King of Spain wanted the presence of native clergy in the churches but the friars were hesitant, citing a policy which was extended to the Philippine missions: “the ordinary legislation (of the Church of New Spain) was unfavorable to the native clergy, whose ignorance and natural instability inspired no confidence, and whose mean origin obscured the dignity of the priesthood.” Hence, for many years of evangelization, the Philippines remained a missionary territory without native clergy.

In 1562 the Council of Trent declared that every bishop should establish in his diocese an educational center to prepare and train diocesan clergy. In response to this declaration, the Dominican Bishop of Manila Domingo Salazar, decreed in 1581 the establishment of a seminary to prepare the natives for the priesthood. However, the prevailing discriminatory paradigm on the competence of Indios  was still thriving in the minds of the Spaniards. Consequently, a number of influential clergy and civil authorities simply ignored the need to train native Filipino clergy. Even the royal decree from the king concerning the preparation of the natives to the priesthood was unheeded.

It was only at the beginning of the 17th century that schools fostering training of future priests emerged.   The Jesuits founded Colegio de San José in 1601. The Dominicans founded the Colegio de Santo Tomás in 1611, the Colegio de San Juan de Letrán and Colegio de San Pedro y San Pablo 1632. These schools catered to the training of the students who were full blooded Spaniards born in the Philippines, the mestizos, and the ilustrados

However, Fr Horacio de la Costa, a Filipino Jesuit and historian, observed some progress when he wrote: “Earlier in the eighteenth century, however, various educational institutions which had originally been founded exclusively for Spaniards had begun to educate native Filipinos for the priesthood.” Fr De la Costa added further:  “We have thus sufficient warrant for saying that in spite of the official attitude unfavorable to the formation of a native clergy, in spite of the obstacles placed in its way by the clumsy machinery of the Patronato, in spite of the often bitter prejudice against the indio – which, though perhaps unjustifiable, was in many cases quite understandable – there were not lacking, in the first half of the eighteenth century, writers to champion what the Church has always held regarding the necessity of a native priesthood, and educators to carry it into effect … reveal that by 1754, at least four educational establishments in Manila were training native candidates for the priesthood; that some of these natives had already been ordained…”

The Patronato that was dominant in the Philippines during the Spanish period and was mentioned above was a form of Church-State relationship in which the monarchs of Spain have the privilege to appoint clerics as granted by the papacy because they “were willing to subsidize missionary activities in newly conquered and discovered territories.” (John F Schwaller, “Patronato real” in Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, vol. 4, p. 323. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons 1996)


The first group of Filipino Priests

Secular clergy are to be engaged for the most part in parish work;  parishes are the proper sphere for them to exercise their ministry.  But Fr De la Costa, citing the writings of another Jesuit historian Fr Alexandre Brou, revealed that “The secular priest was practically reduced by royal legislation to being an assistant of the religious priest.” Apparently, the Church policy on relinquishing the parishes to secular clergy was hindered incessantly by the Patronato.  Regular priests of the powerful religious orders, who were trained in Europe, were given preferential treatment to perpetuate their posts as parish priests.

As a result, the small group of Filipino secular clergy in the beginning of 18th century was ill-trained, discriminated against and restricted to the lowest levels within the Church hierarchy.  Though they were warned of consequences of any insubordination, they advanced a movement called Secularization, that is, a demand for the transfer of parochial administration from the regular friars to the secular priests.

Secularization became an important agenda of the Propaganda Movement that sought reforms from the Spanish rulers. The Filipino secular priests fought vigorously for the secularization. The most vocal among them were Fathers Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora. Aside from their part in the secularization, they were also accused of organizing a mutiny against Spain. They were executed on February 17, 1872, by Spanish colonial authorities. This contributed to build up the nationalism of the Filipinos.

An armed resistance against Spanish colonial rule erupted in 1896. With the support of the Americans, the Spanish forces were defeated and the Spanish colonial regime in the Philippines ended in 1898. The Americans became the new masters of the archipelago.

The situation of the Filipino clergy during this period was described by the Irish Archbishop Michael J. O’Doherty. He was the archbishop of Manila from 1916 to 1949: “True, native priests had been ordained in the Philippines, but they were seldom if ever, allowed to become pastors. To illustrate, the status of affairs in the Archdiocese of Manila may be cited. Of the 350 parishes under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop, only twelve were actually in his control, so far as appointment of pastors were concerned. Other pastors, although nominally appointed by the Archbishop, were really the choice of the Spanish friars.”

With the failure to secure the removal of the friars, many saw it as a clear demonstration of the continuous discrimination against the native priests and the inadequacy of the struggle of the Filipino clergy.


A Division Among the Clergy


A revolutionary Catholic priest, Fr Gregorio Aglipay, continued the fight until he saw the hopelessness of the cause. He severed ties with Rome, and on October 17, 1902, he accepted the position of Obispo Maximo of the new church, the Philippine Independent Catholic Church. Inspired with their nationalistic ideals and defiant attitude against the friars, nearly all Filipino secular priests in the provinces joined Aglipay’s Independent Catholic Church. This division had created much pain to the Catholic Church and profound disunity among the people. A legal case was brought to court to resolve the ownership of the Churches occupied by the new Independent Church. In the end, the high court decided in favor of the Catholic Church.

Undeterred by other difficult and painful events, the Catholic Church remained steadfast and persevered in faith over the years. Today the Philippines is known as the “cradle of Christianity in Asia” and will celebrate the 500th anniversary of welcoming the Catholic faith to its islands come 2021.  

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