500 years of Christianity in the Philippines: Growing in Stature and Wisdom

As we mark 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines, we celebrate the ways in which our faith in Christ has grown up and come of age – how it has learned to respond confidently and courageously, in the face of injustice, greed and conflict, with acts of justice, truth and compassion.

500 Years of Christianity in the Philippines

Growing in Stature and Wisdom

Fr. Finbar Maxwell

by Finbar Maxwell

Rector of Formation

2021 marks the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines.  This is a good opportunity for the Philippine Church to reflect on its experience of faith, both personally and collectively, as that faith has grown over this long time. It is a time for Columbans to reflect on our participation in that faith journey, since the Society first arrived in the Philippines in 1929. For all of us in the Columban formation house in Cubao, students and staff alike, this is a timely occasion for us to reflect on our growth in and our understanding of faith and Columban vocation. 

As we reflect on 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines, we Columbans have chosen as a theme a passage taken from the Gospel of Luke 2:52 ~ “And Jesus grew up in wisdom and stature.”  This would appear to be an appropriate verse to reflect on, since 500 years ago when Christianity was first introduced to the Philippines by Spanish explorers led by Ferdinand Magellan, his gift to Rajah Humabon of Cebu and his chief consort, on the occasion of their baptism in 1521, was the small, ornately dressed statue of the child Jesus, carved from wood in the Flemish style, which came to be known as the Santo Niño, and subsequently became the symbol of faith of the Philippine Church to this day.

Fr. Finbar Maxwell 1

                                                                                                                                                                                       Santo Niño de Cebu

The symbol of a holy child would seem to be an appropriate symbol for a Church at the beginning of its life. Yet in the same way that babies leave the cradle and grow, through the stages of childhood and adolescence into adulthood, so too must our faith grow. Just as we grow physically, chronologically and psychologically, something corresponding to this growth should also be happening in the faith and meaning-making part of our lives – if our faith is truly something that is important to us, something we take seriously, and something we make a conscious effort to develop throughout our lives.

I think it would be accurate to say that the image of the Santo Niño represents a very early stage of faith (infancy to age 15). However, we need to be aware that there are still lots of deepening avenues and expanding adventures yet to come in our faith, if we, as individuals and as communities, are open and willing to go and grow there. The line from the Gospel of Luke 2:52, gives us a sense of how Jesus himself made this evolutionary leap of faith in his own life, and how he teaches us to do the same: to embrace our faith in a very grounded and community-relational way; and in such a way that we too grow up in wisdom and stature.

Let us look at what was happening in Jesus’s life at this time. In the passage preceding Lk 2:52, Jesus had been on pilgrimage with his parents and other relatives in Jerusalem, for the Feast of Passover. They were actually on the journey back to Nazareth when Jesus decided to stay on in Jerusalem. We know from the story how Mary and Joseph noticed that Jesus was not with them, or with their relatives, and how in a state of frantic worry they returned the way they came to look for him. Three fraught and no doubt exhausting days later, they found Jesus in the temple, discussing matters of faith with the religious scholars and doctors of the law.  We sense the relief in their voices when they found him, but also an edge of anger and worry at how he could do this to them - wandered off without concern for how worried and upset they would be. The response of Jesus is quite astonishing though: “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business.” At this point we are told that Jesus then returned home to Nazareth with his parents, lived under their authority, increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.

A point of transition had been reached after Jesus’ pilgrim visit to Jerusalem. Jesus was no longer the same as he was before they had set out. Something had changed, had awakened in him; a greater sense of who he was, a deeper sense of his relationship with God, and a crucial understanding that the future direction of his life would be organized around the “business” of God. Jesus had, in short, come of age. He was no longer a child. At a time that would likely have been around his Bar Mitzvah, Jesus had now, technically and symbolically speaking, left his childhood, left the cradle, and became a man. In other words, Jesus grew up

Upon his return to Nazareth after that time in Jerusalem, Jesus disappeared from our view until the time of his baptism in the Jordan, at about thirty years of age. It would be of immense value to spend some hours in meditative prayer, imagining what Jesus was like in those intervening years, between approximately thirteen and thirty. We can be sure that he grew in maturity, in practical life skills, in relationships, in wisdom, in faith and in a sense of how his whole life would be lived, in relation to God.  From this point on, each of the Gospels, in their areas of convergence and divergence, opens up to us the life of Jesus over the next three years; years of public ministry that would bring him to his violent death at Calvary, and to his subsequent resurrection and ascension. But the important point for us to reflect on here is that Jesus grew up and grew into what his faith and his call held for him. In their own stumbling way, his disciples did likewise. 

This is the invitation to us as people of faith; to grow and deepen in our relationship with God.  The attempt to grow in wisdom and stature – in each of the faith and life stages we are in, is both a challenge and an adventure. Of course, we will never be ‘perfect’, in fact, perfection, if it ever comes, will be at the end of the journey – or maybe after it’s over!  But the focus is not perfection, rather it’s simply to live and to grow, to not settle for being infants – or infantile – in our faith, or in the other parts of our lives. We are called to be responsible to and with each other, and to help each other in this movement towards growth. We do this personally and as a community, individually and as a Church. We are called to respond maturely and courageously to the signs of the times.

A faith that has failed to grow up remains childishly afraid in the face of the challenges, problems and evils that beset our country and our world. As we mark 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines, we celebrate the ways in which our faith in Christ has grown up and come of age – how it has learned to respond confidently and courageously, in the face of injustice, greed and conflict, with acts of justice, truth and compassion. We give thanks to God for the ways in which this maturing faith has gradually been able to shake off the shackles of its colonial past and has developed the confidence to stand firmly with Jesus of Nazareth and the values he teaches, in affirming and protecting human dignity and the integrity and the rights of all peoples and of all of God’s creation.

As Philippine Church reflects on 500 years of faith, it is a time to give thanks. It’s a time to look back, a time to take stock of where we are at this present moment and a time to look towards where we are called to be into the future.  This is an opportunity to reflect on where we are yet to grow, to further mature and move forward together in faith in the years ahead. Let us do so with courage, attention, intention, and with joy-filled hearts.