‘Shadows of Light’ | Inquirer Opinion
Human Face

‘Shadows of Light’

Because history is most often written from the point of view of the victors or the colonizers, the stories of and about the vanquished or the colonized are ignored and, if at all, remain in the archives, there to gather dust for centuries, until…

Sr. Mary John Mananzan, OSB, got a research grant to write the history of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines from the people’s perspective. The grant enabled her to do archival research in the Archivo General de Indias, the Valladolid Archives, the National Library in Madrid, and the Archivo General de Nacion in Mexico.


There is no dearth of information on how colonial history unfolded on our islands, but this was written by the conquistadores during the early years of conquest, and in Spanish at that. Now the data had to be dug up, read with new eyes, interpreted and presented to show what it was like from the so-called underside.

Mananzan’s “Shadows of Light: Philippine Church History Under Spain, A People’s Perspective” (Claretian Communications) does these and adds a twist to enable the reader to see, believe and understand why we are what we are. Instead of simply throwing out long-held assumptions that die hard with bolo (not sword) in hand, she presents another view. But she does not tread lightly, she who is unmistakably a true daughter of the Church—and more.


The book’s cover is subversive enough: in the background a hazy image of a Spanish-era church, and up front a cross that casts a shadow shaped like a sword. Didn’t we learn early on in history class that the Spaniards came with the sword and the cross?

It is these two weapons—used to colonize and to Christianize—that cast shadows on these islands that Mananzan tackles to give light to darkened spots in our past and our present. Pardon the mixed metaphors, but aren’t we a somewhat mixed-up race with a somewhat mixed-up concept of ourselves and of our religious faith?

At the outset, Mananzan lays out a reality: the “split-level Christianity” on which groundbreaking Filipino psychologist Fr. Jaime Bulatao, SJ, had expounded. But “Shadows of Light” is not a treatise on Filipino psychology or sociology; it is about history. So like the historian that she is, Mananzan dwells on historical events and their impact, and invites the reader to see with “a people’s perspective.”

The first chapter opens with an illustration of a babaylan, a priestess-healer. (All illustrations are by Ziggy Perlas.) The chapter is about the “Prehistory of the Church in the Philippines,” and what culture and religion were like in pre-Spanish society. This is often glossed over in history class. Here Mananzan also provides a European context of the conquest of the Philippines, and what was happening in the Church in Spain during the 16th and 17th centuries.

And then Christianization in the context of colonization—plantatio ecclesiae—the missionary activities that reduced the inhabitants to submission, the methods used, the suppression of “idolatrous beliefs,” and so forth. How the frailes—first the Augustinian pioneers, followed by the Franciscans (1577), Jesuits (1581), Dominicans (1587) and Recollects (1606)—conducted systematic evangelization alongside the conquistadores.

Mananzan tackles the role of the clergy in military conflicts, and the conflict between Church and state—for example, between bishop and the civil administration, between archbishop and governor general, between governor and inquisitorial tribunal.

The development of the indigenous clergy is no doubt a high point in the story, and how it helped in the struggle for independence. The continuing struggle of the Filipino clergy exploded in the Cavite mutiny of 1872 that later saw the martyrdom—sentenced to death by garrote—of three Filipino priests, collectively known to us as Gomburza.


Let me say here that Mananzan was a history major in college (magna cum laude), and completed her master’s degree in theology and doctorate in linguistic philosophy (summa cum laude) in Europe. She is a feminist theologian, and served as prioress of the Missionary Benedictines Sisters and as chair of Gabriela. She is the founder and executive director of the Institute of Women’s Studies of St. Scholastica’s College (where she served as president for six years). She is now cochair of the Office of Women and Gender Concerns of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines.

Having said all that, one will not be surprised that Mananzan saves the best for last. The final chapter of her book, “The Impact of the Spanish Church on the Mujer Indigena,” first deals with the women in precolonial Philippines, their place in myths and legends, and, more importantly, their active role in the community.

They were leaders, healers, priestesses. Historian Fe Mangahas, who wrote the foreword for “Shadows of Light,” and coedited with Jenny Llaguno the book “Readings on Babaylan Feminism in the Philippines,” would have much to say on that pre-Spanish period, when women rocked!

Mananzan rues: “The imposition of a strongly patriarchal system had decidedly negative consequences on the role of women in society.

“Though the missionaries were forced to acknowledge the superiority of the mujer indigena (native woman) which they could hardly deny, they nevertheless condemned as vice any behavior which they could not reconcile with the moral prescriptions for women in their mother country. So they praised the women’s intelligence, strong will and practicality, but they censured her for being too sensual and too free in her behavior.”

Thus was spawned the stereotypical Maria Clara, “a delicate ornament of the home or the victim soul of the convent.”

Unrestrained, Mananzan exclaims in bold font: “However, she retained the subversive dangerous memory of her original equality!”

“Shadows of Light” is a good read before 2021, the 500th anniversary of Christianity in the Philippines.

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Send feedback to [email protected] or www.ceresdoyo.com.

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TAGS: History, Roman Catholic church, Spanish Occupation
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