2021: The Philippines’ fifth centenary
It won’t be long before we go into frenzied preparations for the 2021 jubilee marking the coming of Christianity to our shores. It is understandable for us to be polarized over what to focus on, as many aspects of the celebration can be considered. The arrival of Ferdinand Magellan and the first baptisms in 1521 are not the main point, particularly since evangelization proper did not start until 1565 with Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s arrival, or more than 40 years after Magellan. The friendliness and welcoming nature of the natives, our ancestors, and our resiliency can be celebrated, as well as the courage of Lapu-Lapu that inspires us to be faithful to our roots.
Mainly celebrating the coming of Christianity in 1521 does not seem that valid, since after Magellan’s ships left after his death, with nobody to continue the instructions on the Christian faith, the natives must have simply returned to their old beliefs. There are no records on how the natives lived after the Spaniards left. The image of the Santo Niño was found in 1565, more than 40 years later, among the ruins after Legazpi’s attack of Cebu. The fact that the natives practiced nature worship was documented by the Franciscan Juan de Plasencia in his description of the culture of the Tagalogs, written in 1589, the main source on the historico-cultural life of the natives in general. It is presumed that our ancestors in the archipelago generally practiced animism with some influence from Buddhism, Hinduism as well as Islam.
What would perhaps be a stronger reason to celebrate 2021 is the birth of the nation, with its development basically made possible through the work of the first missionaries: the Augustinians (1565), the Discalced Franciscans (1578), the Jesuits (1581), the Dominicans (1587), and the Augustinian Recollects (1606), so that by the end of the 1600s the archipelago’s main island groups had been formed into a unit.
Archives in Spain and the Philippines reveal that the first missionaries worked tirelessly, without thinking of the final result of their work as directed toward the forging of a nation. The mentality and purpose of the explorers of the time were for Spain and Portugal to extend their power to the lands newly discovered by them. That was the mindset then, and we cannot argue with it using the consciousness we have today. The same process of building one nation from diverse groups in a specific landmass had also taken place in Europe and other continents.
While some continue to blame colonization for what we have become, we fail to appreciate what the first missionaries did to promote the good of the natives with the first schools, hospitals, preserving and developing their culture by writing dictionaries, grammar books, music, introducing livelihoods, and building towns and the structures that went with them. None of these would have been possible if the natives were not motivated to work with the missionaries, and for the natives to see that these projects were ultimately to their benefit.
The 2021 celebration should be about the beginnings of our nation, with the undeniable help of the early missionaries who sowed the seeds of unity, freedom and autonomy, which our subsequent heroes used as the foundation of their advocacies. Let us embrace our total and inclusive history, acknowledging its accomplishments while also being sorry for the mistakes done in the name of colonization, not only by Spain but also by America and Japan, and later on other abuses such as martial law and globalization, with the vow that these should not happen again.
With the fifth centenary of the beginnings of our nation as the inclusive theme for 2021, the whole country can celebrate as one, along with particular sectors and groups that in one way or another have contributed to the growth of the seed planted in those first centuries. The jubilee will be the blossoming of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines 2020 theme: “Ecumenism, Inter-Religious Dialogue and Indigenous Peoples.” Dialogue will be the key not only in the work implied in the Philippine Church’s 2021 theme “Missio ad Gentes,” but in the realization of our national goals and dreams for the years ahead. May God, our common Father, give us peace.
Antonio Maria Rosales, OFM ([email protected]), a Franciscan for 58 years and a priest for 52, and former parish priest of Forbes Park, Makati, is now based in Cebu City.