"Here is to the next 500 years."
On March 31, 2021, the head of the Roman Catholic Church celebrated in the Vatican a Mass to commemorate the arrival in Limasawa 500 years earlier of the Spanish sponsored, five-ship expedition of Ferdinand Magellan, which was the first step in the Christianization of the land that eventually became the Philippines. The Mass was the least that Pope Francis could do to commemorate one of the greatest events in the Roman Catholic Church’s history.
In March 1521, the land upon which Magellan and his expedition’s members was part of a continent that was inhabited by adherents of other faiths. Of those, the most widely practiced was the Muslim faith, whose sway extended all the way from the Arabian Peninsula to the western shores of the Pacific Ocean. The island of Mindanao, south of Limasawa, was mostly Muslim territory. Indonesia, to the south of Mindanao, was a totally Muslim land. To the west and north of the Philippines were bastions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and Shintoism.
Truly, Ferdinand Magellan and his band of Catholics – one of whom was the priest Pedro Valderrama who celebrated the first Mass – were in alien territory. They must have come to the realization soon enough. The thought of being among strange – and, after the death of Magellan, hostile – people should have had a daunting effect on the remaining members of the expedition. It should have had the same effect on the expedition’s sponsors, the King and Queen of far-off Spain, but that was not the case. History tells us that Spain, then one of the most powerful countries in Europe, was determined to make the Isles of San Lazarus, as this archipelago was then called, a colony of Spain. The conquest of Manila by Legazpi in 1571 marked the resumption of a relationship with Spain that was to last until 1898.
With the strengthening of the Spanish colonial administration’s control over the archipelago, Catholicism steadily extended its presence and influence alongside Mohammedanism in Mindanao. Te Catholic order established churches, schools and social facilities and began spreading what came to be known as friar lands. The friars held sway in the parts of the archipelago where the colonial administration was weak or absent.
The religious orders and the friars have been at the receiving end of historians’ criticism – indeed, some historians have pointed to resentment against the friars as one of the principal causes of the revolution against Spain – but there can be no denying their role in the survival and strengthening of Catholicism in this country.
Fast forward – to use today’s technical lingo – to March 2021. Today, the Philippines is not only a Christian island in a non-Christian East Asian sea. It also remains a staunch defender of the Roman Catholic faith in a world of increasingly wavering Catholics. Look around you at the attendees at Mass in a European church and you will find that most of the faces of Caucasian devotees are mostly faces of Filipino Catholicism.
At a time when it is long gone from the center of power, Spain can look at the Philippines and take pride in one of its greatest historical feats: Establishing a sole Catholic country in an Asia composed of countries dominated by other religious faiths.
Here’s to the next 500 years of Philippine Catholicism.