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Filipino faith at 500 years

A memorable quip summarises the Philippines’ centuries under different colonial masters: “350 years in a nunnery, followed by 50 years in a brothel”. The explanation of that is the sequence of Spanish and American regimes. The former was equated with the Christian faith, the Carmelite nuns and the Spanish Catholic heritage (of which, more below). The American presence, especially during the times of the Korean and Vietnam wars, was associated with Filipina women providing sexual relief for the libidinous Yankee soldiers (the Americans had naval & air bases in the country, until the leases were not renewed in 1991). Needless to say, the quip is an exaggeration, with some truth about both colonial powers.

2021 commemorates the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines; it is a very interesting story. Of course, long before the Spanish arrived, there had been many tribes of native Filipinos practising their own ancient beliefs, and Islam also predates Christianity in the country. But the spread of the faith was so widespread that now the country is known as “the only Christian nation in Asia”. (East Timor also has a large Catholic majority).

The Spanish galleons sailed into the harbour of Cebu in 1521. During a skirmish with a local tribe, the Spanish troops, because of their heavy fighting gear, found the shallow waters to be treacherous; the locals were far more adept. The leader of the Spanish, the legendary Magellan, who is credited with being the first person to circumnavigate the globe, was killed in the fighting. So the beginnings of Christianity were off to a shaky start; yet in time it flourished. Now there are 72 dioceses and approximately 86% of the population is Catholic, out of around 110 million people.

In 1521 the Philippines was a colony of Spain. I think it fair to say that the foreigners were generally seen as a haughty, proud race. Certainly that was the experience of many of the local clergy over the years: Filipino priests, for a long time, could not become bishops, and felt themselves to be second-class clergy. Eventually the heavy-handed rule of Spain was felt to be insufferable and a series of revolts began, culminating in the ousting of the Spaniards in 1898. It was not only the political leaders who were expelled, but also many of the Spanish clergy, mostly religious congregations (Franciscan, Carmelite, Jesuit). And with in-fighting among the revolutionaries, and some very dubious political chicanery between the USA and Spain, American moved in to become the next colonial power – hence the quip at the start of this article.

The Spanish legacy, apart from the introduction of the Christian faith, was largely in terms of architecture (the Spanish language was never widespread, and now remains mainly in household terms, etc.). The towns built in Spanish times all have the same lay-out: a central plaza is surrounded by various public buildings: the town hall, parish church, hospital, police barracks, etc. Some of the houses are very elegant in design, as are the churches. Interestingly, labourers used egg whites as emulsifiers between the concrete blocks, in building the churches. The egg whites became a sort of mortar, which bonded and strengthened the structure.

The country was a dependency of America until World War 2. In those 50 years, the Americans made a mighty impression, most especially I would say, during the second world war. General Douglas McArthur remains in the Filipino psyche the liberator par excellence who had freed them from the Japanese during the war. To this day, any non-Filipino, especially Caucasian, is referred to as an “Amerikano” and the harmless jeer “Hi Joe” is often heard. Most of its younger users don’t realize that it actually goes back to the friendly greetings their grandparents offered the arriving US troops. This in turn is connected to the US army recruiting slogan “G-I Joe”, which seems to mean either “General Infantryman” for the soldier, or “Government Issue”, for his uniform & weapons.

With the expulsion of the Catholic congregations during the Philippine uprising against Spain, and the subsequent arrival of the Americans, the door was open for the arrival of many Protestant groups. They started many valiant works (hospitals, universities), still going strong. Soon after the arrival of so many Protestant groups the Vatican began to worry, because a good number of Filipinos were joining the new churches. So a request was made for Catholic congregations to go to the country, and thus we had the arrival of, for instance, the Redemptorists (1908), the SVD (1909), the Columbans (1929), and many similar groups, both priests and nuns. Of the groups I’ve mentioned, the SVD (Divine Word) set up many top-class universities around the country; the Columbans did trojan work in many parishes in different parts of the country, often in quite remote areas; the Redemptorists gave missions for many years and established shrines to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Thus the Catholic faith was again stabilized and the quality of relations with various Protestant groups depended on region and personality. In some areas, fine cooperation; in others, a quote from a French missionary will suffice; he was chaplain at a university where there were chaplains of other denominations. When asked how ecumenical relations were at the university, he replied “open warfare”!

A major evaluation of the Filipino faith took place in 1991 at the second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP 2). One memorable quotation from the meeting maintained that, overall, the Filipino people had been sacramentalized but not evangelised. In other words, over the centuries, many had been duly baptized as infants and may have been married in church; but they had never really heard the gospel message, had never become aware of the challenge and vision of their faith. They had never been taught the connection between the faith they profess and their daily conduct, how they deal with others, what obligations their faith may place on them. I remember preaching a homily some years ago where I pointed out the rather obvious, that there was some link between our faith and how, for example, an employer might relate with his employees, in terms of a just salary, benefits, etc. A churchgoer approached me afterwards and said that it was an insight he had never before realised.

For visitors to the country, the numbers in church on any given Sunday can give the impression of a high percentage of the faithful regularly celebrating their faith. However, this would be quite misleading. Actually the percentage of those going regularly to church is quite small, maybe less than 10%. I can verify this from many years, in both urban and rural settings. It’s a country with a population of over 110 million, so churches will be filled easily; but for all those in the pews, there are many more who are not.

Moreover, for all the talk of “lay participation” or “the church of the laity”, it is still very much a clerical church; the parish priest is the boss, he’s in charge and the buck stops with him. In quite an unhealthy way the priest is almost untouchable, almost above the rule of law. Having said that, there are many hard-working and selflessly devoted priests; and there have been prophetic voices among the clergy – and the laity. Among the former was my colleague Rudy Romano, who, because of his strong stance in support of the poor, was abducted in 1985, and has never been seen since. Another was Fr. Neri Satur who was murdered in 1991 because of his firm stance on the matter of illegal logging.

And what about the laity? Could it be the Vatican’s none-too-subtle message to the over-clerical Philippine church, that the only two Filipinos so far canonised are laymen? Undoubtedly there have been, and still are, countless Filipinos of a saintly character, as there surely are in every nation. Still, Lorenzo Ruiz and Pedro Calungsod are the only officially declared Filipino members of the celestial “cloud of witnesses” (Heb: 12:1). Presumably they are interceding daily with the Lord for a lessening of the stifling clericalism of their native land!

Of course, among the laity there have been many more who have lost their lives in the cause of peace and justice. Yet I will conclude by commending the many lay people who provide a mighty service to their local communities, mostly in the rural areas, many of whom I’ve met over the years. The main focus of their contribution to the faith community is their leading the Sunday service in the chapel, sometimes 15 or 20 miles from the parish church, quite remote. They carry out the liturgy with a solemnity appropriate to the rustic surroundings: a simple wooden chapel, with maybe 10 or 15 participants, mostly women and children; sometimes less than ten. If you’re looking for numbers, head to the mall or the gambling den: only the die-hards go to the Sunday service. I’m full of admiration for these local church leaders, both men and women. Rain or shine, “in and out of season” (2 Tim: 4:2) they fulfil their duty of preaching the word & thus quenching the spiritual thirst of their hearers, with no recompense apart from the Lord’s words that “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded” (Matt 10:42).

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