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The 500-Year History of Catholicism in the Philippines

In anticipation of Christianity’s quincentenary in the country, let’s look back at key events that led Filipinos’ faith to what it is today.

Before Catholicism became the dominant religion in the Philippines, pre-colonial Filipinos expressed their faith in a variety of ways—from animism and folk healing to traces of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. 

Today, that trend continues. Though statistics say that nearly 93 percent—more than 100 million—of the Philippine population belongs to the Christian denomination (like Catholicism, Protestantism, Iglesia ni Cristo, Aglipayan Church, and others), there is still a good number of Filipinos who are Muslim, Buddhist, or practicing some form of folk religion.

“Our faith is really part of our being,” said Ozamiz Archbishop Martin Jumoad in an interview on the importance of religion to Filipinos. “Man is grounded on the other. Man is not complete when he cannot express his religious convictions publicly.” 

Catholicism in the Philippines really boasts a rich and colorful history. And in preparation for its 500th year in 2021, the whole Philippine Church has embarked on a 9-year celebration that started in 2013 and will culminate in 2021 in Cebu City. Our dear Pope Francis is also expected to join in on the celebrations, as the CBCP has formally invited him to celebrate this special milestone.

Now, as we anticipate Christianity’s quincentenary in the country, let’s take a look back at some key events—the arrival of Christianity in the country via Spanish explorers (who also gave us our first printed book), the introduction of new forms of faith to Filipinos, the Catholic religion’s involvement in Philippine politics, the historic visits from three popes, and the high possibility of having a Filipino pope in the future. (Read: Four Miraculous Events that Occurred in Philippine History)

1. Spain brings Christianity to the Philippines in 1521.

the-philippines-marks-500-years-of-christianity-in-2021-here-are-scenes-from-its-colorful-history
Painting in oil on canvas by Carlos “Botong” Francisco (Philippines) during the Reframing Modernisim exhibition at the National Gallery Singapore. (Photo by Choo Yut Shing / Flickr)

The spice trade wasn’t the only agenda of Spanish explorers who ventured to the Philippine shores in the 16th century. When colonizers landed on the Philippine shores in March 1521, they also introduced Christianity to locals. Despite initial resistance, the influence stuck. Nearly 500 years later, more than 86 percent—more than 94 million—of the Philippine population is Catholic, and the country ranks third in the world with the most number of Catholics, following Brazil and Mexico.

2. Filipinos receive one of their first printed books in 1593.

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Photo from Philippine Star

Juan de Plasencia, a Spanish friar of the Franciscan Order, penned the Doctrina Christiana—literally, the Teaching of Christianity—in the year 1593 and shared it among the locals. Written in Spanish and with Tagalog and Tagalog Baybayin translations, the book contains basic prayers, the Ten Commandments, the Sacraments of the Holy Church, Seven Mortal Sins, Fourteen Works of Charity, the Confiteor, and a brief Catechism. (Read: Good Reads: Books for Your Mind and Soul)

3. Americans introduce Filipinos to other religions.

the-philippines-marks-500-years-of-christianity-in-2021-here-are-scenes-from-its-colorful-history
Protestant Outdoor Service (Photo from Doctrine Unites!)

Protestant teachers and ministers were among the earliest Americans who settled in the Philippines at the start of the 1900s. Years later, Filipino lawmakers would include this provision—“the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship…shall forever be allowed”—in the 1935 Philippine Constitution.

4. Democracy is restored with the help of Catholics.

the-philippines-marks-500-years-of-christianity-in-2021-here-are-scenes-from-its-colorful-history
(Left) Photo by Pete Reyes courtesy of Manila Times; (Right) Photo from Philippine Star

The Catholic Church played a major role in the events leading to the 1986 People Power Revolution. Upon the urging of Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, ordinary citizens, including priests and nuns, trooped to EDSA to support soldiers not with bullets, but with flowers, food, and prayers. And with the shutdown of all forms of media, Catholic radio station Radio Veritas kept the public informed of government activities as they unfolded. 

5. Three popes visit the country (one of them twice!).

the-philippines-marks-500-years-of-christianity-in-2021-here-are-scenes-from-its-colorful-history
Photos from Wikipedia, L’Osservatore Romano / Catholic News Agency, and Donatella Giagnori / Eidon Press / ZUMA Wire / New York Post

Pope Paul VI came in 1970 (and sustained minor wounds from an assassination attempt by Benjamin Mendoza y Amor Flores, a Bolivian painter dressed as a priest). Pope John Paul II arrived first in 1981 and then 14 years later for the 1995 World Youth Day. Pope Francis had a full itinerary when he visited the country from January 15 to 19, 2015. Besides the National Capital Region (NCR), Lolo Kiko flew to Leyte, where he celebrated Mass and met with victims of Typhoon Yolanda. He is expected to visit the country again next year, 2021, and join the Filipino Catholics’ celebration in Cebu for the 500th anniversary of Catholicism in the Philippines. (Read: CBCP formally invites Pope Francis to visit the Philippines in 2021)

6. Cardinal Tagle becomes cardinal-bishop.

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Pope Francis greets Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, at the sign of peace while celebrating Mass at the city’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Jan. 16, 2015. (americamagazine.org/CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In early May 2020, Pope Francis promoted Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle to cardinal-bishop—a designation described as one of the highest-ranking princes of the Catholic Church. As one of the Vatican’s 11 cardinal-bishops, Tagle is regarded as a “close-in consultor” of Lolo Kiko. Could the position of pope be in the future for the man known as the “Asian Francis”?  

7. The Church enters the “new normal.” 

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At the Jaro Metropolitan Cathedral in Iloilo City, parishioners attending Sunday’s Mass observe social distancing to avoid spreading the coronavirus disease 2019. (Photo by Ian Paul Cordero / PN / Panay News)

Early in March 2020, the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic saw the suspension of Masses, traditional Holy Week practices, and other religious gatherings for the first time since World War II.

With NCR and other areas now under general community quarantine (GCQ) status beginning June 1, church leaders and the faithful have appealed to the government to lift the ban on religious gatherings. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines drafted a lengthy and detailed Recommendations and Guidelines for Liturgical Celebrations in “New Normal” Conditions. (Read: Here’s what you can expect on 2020 weddings, baptisms, Sunday Masses) Areas placed under modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) saw the reopening of their churches to a limited capacity and following stringent protocols.

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