2nd update: January 17, 2021, &:05 AM
Updated:January 16, 2021, 6:50 PM

A Quincentenary in Five Minutes

by Ricardo Salise Caluen

Toronto, Ontario

That’s how  long it took me to make this presentation during our recent virtual celebration of this year’s Feast of the Sto. Niño. I was asked by my group—Toronto’s Sto. Niño Circle of Families and Friends—to make our celebration relevant to the quincentenary. My audience was mainly Boholano, thus, the frequent reference. My roots are also in Bohol. These are hastily assembled notes from memory dovetailed to yields from Wikipedia. Any historical inaccuracies are entirely mine.

This year marks the anniversary of a significant event in Philippine history—the introduction of Christianity in the country in 1521….that’s 500 years ago…come April 14, 2021 to be exact…if we start the chronology with the baptism of  Rajah Humabon and his wife Humamay of Sugbu on April 14, 1521.

The rest of the world is commemorating the quincentennial of the Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation of the world, a celebration that started in 2019 and ending  in 2022. That’s three years representing the period from when Magellan left Spain on September 20, 1519 and when Juan Sebastian Elcano returned to the same port and arriving there on September 6, 1522, two weeks short of 3 years travel around the world, the first-ever in History.

The historian Laurence Bergreen considered this expedition  “the greatest sea voyage ever undertaken, and the most significant”. Scientifically, the voyage proved that the Earth is round.

The Philippines is highlighting the religious significance of this milestone in world history, exhibiting pride in its Christian religious heritage.  While most of us remember the landing  of Magellan on Philippine soil on March 16, 1521, the other important year to remember is 1565 when Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived….and started the full-scale colonization of the country and alongside it the Christianization of the natives.

The Philippine government was well-advised by historians in the phrasing of the theme of the quincentennial celebration by using the term “Christianization”—a word depicting action—as against “Christianity” which seems to infer an established reality. This is so perhaps because while Humabon and Humaya and 800 of their followers were baptized on April 14, 1521….just a week after Magellan was killed in the Battle of Mactan by Lapulapu on April 27,   Humabon was already trying to poison the Spanish survivors of the battle during a feast. Juan Sebastian Elcano and the rest had to leave Sugbu in haste. In the aftermath, the natives had  returned to their old religious beliefs. In fact, the now famous image of the Santo Nino was discovered inside a chest, which means it was hidden.

The Jesuit historian John Schumacher claims “no whole people, at least prior to the 19th century, has ever in the history of the Church been so thoroughly evangelized as were the Filipinos.”

It doesn’t mean everything went smoothly for the Friars or the Spanish soldiers for that matter. Not all the natives readily welcomed the new religion. One of the earliest revolts  against the Spaniards was fuelled by religious reasons. This was led by Tamblot of Bohol in 1621. He was a baylan or healer and priest of the native religion.

Let us also not forget that in some parts of the archipelago Islam had already taken roots, especially in Manila and Southern Luzon and  in Mindanao. The noted Filipino historian Renato Constantino theorized that had the Spaniards come only a hundred years later…much of the Philippines would have been Islamized and we would be like Indonesia and Malaysia now.

A Boholano might have been among the earliest rebels against the new religion and Spanish rule…yet it was another Boholano who actually aided Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in the conquest of Luzon and consequently in the spread of Christianity. His name is Manook, later christened Don Pedro Manuel Manook. His father was Pagbuaya, a prince from the island kingdom of Panglao. Pagbuaya and members of his tribe had to flee Bohol just before the arrival of Legazpi out of fear of retaliatory raids from Borneans.

Across the centuries, a brand of Catholicism…often referred to by Sociologists as Folk Catholicism…had developed in the country. This social phenomenon often occurs when a new set of beliefs or concepts supplant older ones. As they say, it is difficult to get rid of old habits or beliefs. Thus, shades and shapes of the old beliefs have found expression in the new religion.

We see snippets of folk Catholic practices in our lavish fiestas that had taken over practices surrounding planting and harvest seasons, our inordinate belief in the curative powers of objects and materials associated with or had touched  religious images (e.g., tearing off pieces from clothes of religious images during processions or even grabbing the flowers being strewn by “angels” during the meeting of Jesus and the Virgin Mary at Easter Sunday celebration for these are believed to bring good harvest if planted or will invite a good catch if brought into a fishing boat, etc.). Critics say folk Catholicism manifests aspects of idolatry and fanaticism.

Five hundred years ago Spanish missionaries came to the Philippines to spread a new religion. Today, Filipinos have become missionaries in their own right. Many cathedrals and churches in Europe had long suffered from low attendance at Mass or church visits. But in the past three decades or so, these churches are now filling up on Sundays and religious procession lines are getting longer again, thanks to Catholic OFWs who have remained faithful to their religion and religious practices and carried on with the rituals in whatever foreign land they find themselves in.

Of course, it has long been claimed that Boholano priests have now overtaken Irish priests in missions or the manning parishes all over the world…Our very own Father Antonio  Barol is just one of them. Incidentally, no less than Cardinal Luis Tagle, until recently Archbishop of Manila, now heads one of the most important departments in the Vatican, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples which is responsible for spreading the Catholic faith around the globe.

After 500 hundred years since Christianity was planted in the Philippines, those of us in the 21st century face the challenge of carrying on the religious zeal and pass on our Catholic religious heritage.

About the author:

Ricardo Jorge S. Caluen is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Ontario. A native of Iligan City, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in History and Political Science from De La Salle University in Manila. He taught at the Mindanao State University – Iligan Institute of Technology where he was Chair of the Department of Political Science. He took up a Masters in History at University of Toronto in 1987 as a scholar of the Rotary Foundation. He moved to Canada in 1992 and currently works with the City of Toronto. A former editor of Toronto-based The Filipino Bulletin, he contributes to Philippine dailies and online magazines as a freelance writer.