Philippines Marks 500 Years of Christianity

Beginning on Easter Sunday, Asia’s most Catholic country will commemorate the arrival of the faith in their nation.

A Santo Niño (Holy Child) statue is seen inside the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, in Palo, Philippines, Jan. 17, 2015. This year Filipino Catholics celebrate 500 years of the arrival of the Christian faith in their country.
A Santo Niño (Holy Child) statue is seen inside the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, in Palo, Philippines, Jan. 17, 2015. This year Filipino Catholics celebrate 500 years of the arrival of the Christian faith in their country. (photo: Alan Holdren / Catholic News Agency)

In the most Catholic country in Asia, the larger-than-life Magellan Cross stands within an open-air chapel at the heart of Cebu City in the central section of the sprawling Philippine Islands. 

A monument to the heroic voyage of Spain’s Ferdinand Magellan, the first to circumnavigate the globe, the cross has a special place in the celebration this year of the 500th anniversary of Christianity being brought to the Philippines.

A reenactment of the first baptism in the Philippines will take place April 14 in front of the Magellan Cross, commemorating the christening of King Humabon and his wife by a Spanish priest a month after the Magellan party landed on March 16, 1521. There will also be a Mass with a national ceremony for the renewal of baptism promises in the nearby Basilica of Santo Niño, followed by a cultural exhibition to highlight the historic meeting of East and West. 

Magellan is believed to have planted a smaller cross that is now encased in the larger cross at that spot and to have brought a statue of Jesus called Santo Niño (Holy Child) that gives it name to the basilica. Though Magellan was killed while taking sides in a battle between warring local tribes, one ship of his fleet eventually completed its world-circling voyage. 


Faith and Struggle

The Spanish colonization of the archipelago country was a mixed blessing: It brought the faith, but it also brought foreign rule, leading to Filipinos’ fight for independence in the 19th century. However, the Catholic Church is emphasizing the positive spiritual and cultural benefits of the faith on the nation. A pastoral letter by Davao Archbishop Romulo Valles, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, states, “The Philippine Church rejoices as it enters a national celebration of the 500 Years of Christianity in our treasured homeland. Five centuries ago, we received the marvelous gift of the Christian faith; our hearts overflow with joy and gratitude.” Indeed, the enduring influence of Catholicism is seen today in the fact that roughly 86% of the nation’s steadily growing population of 109 million professes the Catholic faith, despite the advance of secularism among the young and ardent competition from evangelical Protestants.

To mark the anniversary, Pope Francis offered Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on March 14, accompanied by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the former archbishop of Manila. The Pope visited the Philippines in 2015.

Nine years in preparation, the public ceremonies for the anniversary have been scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic that has struck the Philippines especially hard. The theme for this jubilee year is “Mission Ad Gentes.” Official celebrations begin on Easter Sunday, April 4, with the National Quincentennial Celebration of the First Easter Mass to be offered in churches throughout the nation, in commemoration of the Easter Mass offered with Magellan’s crew on March 31, 1521. 

The official image of the event, “Gifted to Give: 500 Years of Christianity in the Philippines,” shows the first baptism in the Philippines. An extensive schedule of livestreamed events and Masses is planned throughout the year for clergy, religious, laypeople and ecclesial movements. Dioceses and parishes will celebrate their founding, some dating to the 16th century, and sponsor pilgrimages to shrines and jubilee churches.


Secular Spin

Illustrative of the sometimes-tense relations between the bishops and the Philippine national government, President Rodrigo Duterte has chosen to emphasize a different theme for the quincentennial. His 2020 executive order for the anniversary calls for a “Filipino-centric view of the first circumnavigation of the world, by underscoring the magnanimity, compassion and humanity of our ancestors in helping the impoverished crew of the expedition that traversed the Pacific Ocean, and the courage and bravery of the warriors in Mactan that continue to serve as an inspiration to our heroes and martyrs up to this day.” 

Given the increasingly secular agenda being implemented by Duterte, the civic celebrations may be more muted.

In fact, President Duterte has pursued an aggressively secular agenda since his 2016 election, strongly favoring the reproductive-health law that withstood two years of legal challenges from pro-life organizations. The law mandates that contraceptives be available at all government health centers and that secular sex education be taught in schools. 

Although abortion remains illegal in the country, the law gives tacit approval of the procedure, stating that women have a right to professional medical care after abortion. The nation’s bishops also have opposed the president’s violent war on drugs, in which large numbers of dealers and users have been killed, and Duterte has criticized the Church’s leaders in statements laced with vulgar epithets.


Filipino Mission

In his pastoral letter issued in November of last year, Archbishop Valles draws extensively on Pope Francis’ encyclical Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) to underline the ad gentes (to the nations) missionary character of the Church in the Philippines. 

Reflecting on the fact that God chose the Filipino people as the first in Asia to receive the Gospel, the archbishop concluded that Filipinos now have a mission to spread the Gospel not only in Asia but throughout the world. He cited the examples of two Filipino saints, Lorenzo Ruiz and Pedro Calungsod, both of whom died as martyrs in other countries.

Jose Reyes, a retired justice of the Supreme Court in the Philippines, pointed out that the Catholic faith has been the foundation of law and culture in the country over the centuries. The anniversary will give the Church a chance to repropose the Gospel message throughout the country, he said in an email interview with the Register. 

“I believe the celebration of 500 years will improve the role of the Catholic Church in the minds of the Filipino people,” he said. “The call to mission will increase the number of evangelizers and will therefore enable Catholics to deepen their faith and experience a Church of love which cares for the poor and those in need.” 

A member of the board of directors of the international Knights of Columbus, Reyes said that the 400,000 members of the fraternal organization in the Philippines will be among those staffing and promoting the diocesan and parish initiatives during this year. 

In an email interview with the Register, Msgr. Pedro Quitorio, the director of the media office of the bishops’ conference, summed up the goals of the anniversary activities. 

“The [C]hurch in the Philippines prays that this historic celebration of 500 years of Christianity will not only be celebratory,” he said, “but one that will foster a renewed commitment and enthusiasm in living out the Gospel, challenged to become [a] more authentic witness to our faith, especially to our Asian neighbors in the years to come.”

Stephen Vincent writes from Connecticut.