An inclusive 5th centenary of PH Christianity
The decision of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines to have the 5th Centenary Celebration “of 500 years of Christianity (YOC) in the country” to end in 2022 instead of the original 2021 because of the pandemic is most certainly a grace. A program from the Archdiocese of Cebu, ground zero of the celebration, was published in the Sept. 27 issue of SunStar. A more inclusive celebration can be planned in response to the encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” signed by Pope Francis in Assisi last Oct. 3.
First of all, there is a need to be more specific: 2021 is technically the commemoration only of the first Mass on Easter Sunday, 1521, and the baptisms after, so the “500 years of Christianity” is misleading; the “5th Centenary commemoration of the First Mass in Cebu” is more exact. The Philippines as a country did not exist yet at the time.
Using “500 years of Christianity” is also misleading, because the purpose of Magellan’s voyage was not for evangelization, but to find a new route for commerce and trade. He had only one priest on board, who returned to Spain after Magellan was killed. Nobody was left behind to continue the Christian formation of the natives for 43 years, until the coming of Legazpi and the Augustinians in 1565, when evangelization began. In fact, according to the first description of the religion of the natives made by Franciscan fray Juan de Plasencia in 1589, the belief system then was animistic, with traces of Islam and Hinduism. The statuette of the Santo Niño found in the ruins of the settlement burned by Legazpi’s men in Cebu to intimidate the natives could have been worshipped as just another idol.
The purpose of the early expeditions was to find “gold, silver, and spices.” It was only after the Council of Trent (1545-1564), held primarily to check the spread of Protestantism by defining dogmatically the doctrines attacked by the Protestants and to reform the discipline of the Church, that evangelization and missions were added to the purposes of the expeditions, to make up for the loss of Catholics in Europe to Protestantism. The purpose of the expeditions after Trent became “God, gold, and glory.”
The extension of the celebration to 2022, because of COVID-19, can give us not only more time, but also more space to make the event more inclusive and more universal, in the spirit given by Pope Francis in “Fratelli Tutti,” of opening our minds and hearts to the generosity and goodness of God who sent his Son to save all and to enrich our human experience with the realization that we are all one family, brothers and sisters. COVID-19 has helped us realize that truth in the way many of us have responded to the crisis.
Making the 5th centenary inclusive as the birth of our nation, giving the event a greater trajectory and scope to include other aspects, will not belittle the contribution of Christianity, which was primarily influential in bringing together the scattered tribes and islands of the archipelago, through the unifying power of the Holy Spirit, in the good news of Jesus Christ. An inclusive celebration should include an affirmation of all the other influences that came before 1521, from Islam and the surrounding countries like India and China that contributed to our languages, world view, and culture in ways we have not appreciated enough in the past.
For all the factors, before and after 1521, that made us what we are, we can thus be grateful come 2022. It is an affirmation of the Filipino identity and talent to blend different, precious, and beautiful influences, a talent that has made us unique in the family of nations today. We can blend in and adjust to any culture, and learn any language, as our millions of overseas Filipino workers and expatriates give testimony to worldwide.
May the closing words of Pope Francis in the introduction to his new encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” challenge and inspire us: “By ourselves we risk seeing mirages, things that are not there. Dreams, on the other hand, are built together. Let us dream then as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all.”
May the Lord give us healing, unity, hope, and peace.
Antonio Maria Rosales (email@example.com), a Franciscan since 1961, a priest since 1968, and former parish priest of Santuario de San Antonio, Makati, is a member of the Franciscan Custody of St. Anthony of Padua Philippines. He is based in Cebu City.