500 years of Christianity in the Philippines “A time to keep and a time to discard” [Ecclesiastes: 3:6]

500 years of Christianity in the Philippines

“A time to keep and a time to discard” [Ecclesiastes: 3:6]


By Paul Glynn

This year, 2021, the Philippine Church is celebrating 500 years since the arrival of Christianity. On March 31, 1521 Ferdinand Magellan and his fleet moored at Limasawa Island (Leyte), at the time part of the outlying territory of the Rajahnate (Kingdom) of Butuan (Northern Mindanao). According to the fleet’s chronicler, the first Catholic Mass was celebrated in the Philippines that day by the fleet’s chaplain, Padre Pedro Valderrama. It was Easter Sunday. From there the fleet proceeded to Cebu, where Rajah Humabon, his consort Humamay, his wives and a number of his subjects were baptized. A statue of the Infant Jesus, the Santo Niño, was presented to Humamay to mark the occasion. Unfortunately for Magellan, he made the fatal decision of getting enmeshed in a local dispute by agreeing to help Rajah Humabon defeat his rival Lapulapu. In the ensuing battle Magellan was unceremoniously slain by Lapulapu’s forces. Rather than achieving his aim of circumnavigating the world and returning to the Spanish king with ship-loads of highly coveted spices from the Malocas Islands, he was buried in Cebu and the rest of his crew completed the voyage back to Spain.

Even though some historians claim that other missionaries said mass in the Philippines before 1521, tradition has it that the Easter Sunday Eucharist that took place on Limasawa Island on March 31, 1521 marked the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines. The Santo Niño statue which was given to Humamay in 1521 was subsequently rediscovered by Miguel Lopez de Legaspi’s fleet when they arrived back in Cebu in 1565 as part of the mission to colonize and evangelize what had already come to be known as Las Islas Filipinas; named in honor of the new King of the Spanish Empire, Felipe II. To this day Santo Niño takes pride of place in Cebu and has come to symbolize the Catholic faith in the Philippines; a faith that continues to endure despite everything.

First Mass in the Philippines

In his letter at the beginning of this year’s celebration the acting bishop of Manila, Bishop Broderick Pabillo, points out that: “Although the Cross of the faith had come with the Sword of the conquistadores in the time of colonialism, through time the Filipinos have learned to distinguish between the Christian faith and the Spanish colonialism. We had fought against the Spanish masters and drove them out but we have remained fervent in our fidelity to the Catholic Church”.

This is indeed a time to celebrate; yet it is also a time for us to mourn the injustices of the past, to learn from the mistakes of history and to redouble our resolve to do what is fitting to right the wrongs and heal the wounds of colonialism. This is a time to celebrate the great vibrancy of faith and commitment to the Gospel of tens of millions of Filipinos here and all over the world. It is a time to be grateful for how the values of the Gospel of Jesus have endured for 500 years despite being historically so enmeshed with colonial oppression. Commitment to the Gospel has strengthened the people of this archipelago to stand up to corrupt dictators, to practice immense resiliency in the face of all sorts of natural disasters, calamities, wars and conflicts and to endure the worst forms of poverty, hardship and injustice. Once evangelized by Spanish friars, Filipinos are the new face of the missionaries who answer the call to proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

Yet, as we celebrate 500 years of Christianity, we also need to seriously reflect on where the values of the Gospel have not yet fully taken root in our own lives and in the life of Philippine society as a whole. Why, in the third most Catholic country in the world and the only majority Christian country in Asia, is there still so much poverty, inequality, exploitation of workers, of women and children, violation of basic human rights, injustice and corruption? Why is there still misunderstanding and distrust between our diverse communities? Why are we so remiss in caring for the oceans, rivers, forests, flora and fauna of this, our beautiful land? This is a time for us to celebrate our 500 years of commitment to Christianity; but it is also a time to mourn our immense shortcomings in order to renew our resolve to be ever more faithful to the Gospel of Christ into the future.