500 years of Christ and the Filipinos (Manila Times Walking History
By Michael Charleston “Xiao” Chua
December 12, 2020
RECENTLY, Dr. José Mario Bautista Maximiano released the first volume of his book “MDXXI: 500 Years Roman Catholic,” covering the years 1521 to 1872 in anticipation of the quincentennial year 2021. Despite my being a Protestant Christian, he was kind enough to let me review the manuscript and gave me the honor to write its foreword. His book made me reflect on the impact of the Christian faith on our history and identity.
We always thought when the Spaniards came and brought Catholicism to the country 500 years ago, that the people of the Philippines, as if without an agency or a mind of their own, were forcefully transformed into Catholics. Although St. John Paul 2nd apologized and asked for forgiveness that the Church was once used for colonialism, this is just one part of the story.
Pag-aangkin (assimilation) happened. Like most foreign influences that came to us, we made it Filipino and it became part of our identity. Like we did with siopao (meat buns), siomai (meat dumplings) or bahay na bato (stone houses), we made Catholicism as Filipino as it could be. We accepted it because it also reflected the faith that most Filipinos already had before the Spanish contact in 1521. We saw anito (spirits) in the saints. We saw anting-anting (amulets) in the rosaries and crosses. We saw our dead in the Santo Entierro and the Nazareno and wiped them down with our hankies to partake of their power to heal. We sing the Pasiong Mahal like we chant the old epics.
Yet the love of the Filipinos for the Lord is real. Historians have pointed out that the Gospel story of God sacrificing His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to spread light then suffer darkness and death and be resurrected in the light of glory once again was a narrative seen by our national heroes such as Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio in the story of our own people: We were once free and prosperous as an island; we suffered inequality and enslavement; and we shall rise up and regain our freedom.
Katipuneros held a meeting in a cave in Morong province on a Good Friday not only because it was a holiday, but because it reminded them that like the Lord, they should be ready to sacrifice their lives to save their people from bondage. Andres Bonifacio and Emilio Jacinto said to have true kalayaan (freedom) and kaginhawahan (relief), it was necessary to have “mabuting kalooban (good heart).” Bonifacio reminded us that to really love God, one has to love one’s “tinubuang lupa (motherland)” and one’s fellow man.
The narrative of darkness-light-darkness, of tragedy and redemption was the narrative that the Fathers and Mothers of this nation used to imagine and create the Nation; to hope for a better life for us, their future.
We also see connections in how religious fervor inspired events such as Hermano Puli’s resistance and the EDSA People Power Revolution. Here, revolutions are beyond the political; they are expressed in many ways. We manifest himagsikan (uprisings) through our faith.
The story of Christianity in the Philippines is not just the story of the Padre Damasos and Padre Salvis, but of people such as Bishop Domingo de Salazar OP, who exposed the abuses his fellow Spaniards committed; of people such as Fathers Pelaez, Gomez, Burgos and Zamora, who fought for the right of Filipinos to have a hand in directing their local church. We saw Catholic priests such Gregorio Aglipay, guiding Asia’s first constitutional democratic republic. We see the participation of both the religious and lay Catholics in the making of history.
“Look not on our sins but in the faith of our Church” is a phrase every Catholic utters in every mass. The Church’s sons and daughters may have erred, but the faith of Filipinos sustained the survival of both Christianity in this country and of our own nation. Our faith in God makes us survive every calamity and vicissitude, and while European Christian churches are closing down, Filipinos continue to flock to the churches to express their faith and gratitude here and abroad.
So, how can we not celebrate 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines when it has become part of our national experience and of who we are? How can we not celebrate it when this is the faith of a majority of Filipinos? Yes, it is a Church humble enough to admit that it is always in need of semper purificanda (purification) and of learning hard lessons from the past. But we should never deprive ourselves by not celebrating our triumphs.
Rizal said, “To foretell the destiny of the Nation, it is necessary to open the books that tell of its past.” I say, to celebrate 500 years of our faith in Jesus Christ, we should reflect on the gift it gave us to eventually be inspired in creating our own Nation and show our love for each other as Filipinos.
And anyway, Jesus Christ is the reason for the season. Merry Christmas!