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70 years of Holy See-PH diplomatic ties

By: - Arts and Books Editor / @LitoZulueta
/ 05:02 AM January 23, 2022

The quincentenary of the arrival of Christianity is coincidentally being celebrated along with the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and the Holy See (1951-2021). This has surprised people who have presumed that the history of Philippine relations with the papacy is coextensive with that of Latin Christianity in the country. A recent web forum by the Apostolic Nunciature and University of Santo Tomas sought to clear up the matter.

With the end of Spanish colonization in 1898, according to church historian Fr. Nestor Impelido, SDB, came likewise the end of the patronato real (royal patronage) that married church and Spanish monarchy. The ceding of the Philippines to the United States, which practiced separation, saw the start in 1899 of Holy See representation in the country in the person of the first apostolic delegate, Msgr. Placide Louis Chapelle. The Holy See move was deft. Chapelle was an American citizen and knew well Spanish and the US constitution.

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But he wasn’t apostolic nuncio. He was apostolic delegate. In a talk at UST in 1982, Archbishop Bruno Torpigliani, the longest-serving apostolic nuncio to the Philippines (1973-1990), explained that the apostolic delegate is accredited by the Holy See only to the local churches of the territory of his assignment; in contrast the nuncio is accredited to the civil government.

The consolidation of the Philippine Church under Chapelle and his successors amid the American century and Protestant advent was remarkable when one considers that the US elite then as now are basically Wasp (“white Anglo-Saxon Protestant”). The US became independent in 1776, but it was only in 1893, nearly MORE THAN A hundred years later, when it started receiving an apostolic delegate. Moreover, full diplomatic relations with the Vatican were established only in 1984.

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In the UST forum, Father Impelido disclosed the contents of a letter written to President Elpidio Quirino (1948-1953) by Salesian Archbishop Guglielmo Piani, the longest-serving apostolic delegate to the Philippines (1922-1948). The letter was retrieved from the archives of the Salesian curia in Rome.

Piani urged conservation of the Philippines’ religious and cultural heritage (“las riquezas de la fe” and “la hermosuras de las costumbres”—“the riches of the faith” and “the beauty of traditions”): “to sanctify the Day of the Lord; to keep the days of obligation and Sunday rest; to make holy the union of man and woman and bring up Christian families; to educate their children in a Christian manner; and to remind them always that blessed (are) the people whose God is the Lord.”

Reacting to Impelido’s paper, Dumaguete Bishop Julito Cortes, chair of the episcopal conference’s cultural heritage commission, said Piani’s letter pointed out the “desafíos” (challenges) and “los algunos obstáculos” (“some obstacles”) to postwar Philippine rehabilitation and progress. They were pastoral in character and clearly affected the Church’s ministry.

Fast forward to the present when the Church, according to Bishop Cortes, is faced with proposed legislations in Congress that run counter to the Church’s teachings on family and society, such as the absolute divorce bill and the civil partnership bill, “a variant of same-sex marriage” in the West. Bright points are Republic Act No. 10966 of 2017 declaring Dec. 8 as a special non-working holiday to commemorate the Immaculate Conception, principal patroness of the Philippines, and RA 11370 of 2019 declaring Sept. 8 a special working holiday to celebrate the Nativity of Mary.

Cortes indicated church-state discord on family and social concerns would fester.

“It would raise copious eyebrows if today’s apostolic nuncios were to send letters to the Philippine president—in the same vein with the same weight—similar to Archbishop Piani’s 1948 letter,” said Cortes. “It could be construed as undue influence or even interference in the domestic affairs of the state.” At best, the Piani letter should be a “timely conversation piece among historians, theologians, and (those in) leadership positions in Church and government … (for them) to address, and thereby arrest today’s erosion of decency and morality in family life and values.”

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Lito B. Zulueta is a journalist and editor who has covered major Vatican events. He teaches at the University of Santo Tomas.

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