Exactly on Christianity’s 500th year in the Philippines (March 16, 2021) Rappler published an article which presents a position or opinion that we should not celebrate the quincentenary of Christianity in the Philippines. The article says: “No, we shouldn’t celebrate 500 years of Christianity in our country. To do so would be to spit on the memory of our ancestors. To do so would be to bury their dream for freedom — a dream that we are yet to fully realize.”  My initial feeling is that the article seems to contain a basic flaw, that is, it lacks that fundamental appreciation in our ancestors’ capacity to discern and decide. Our forebears were intelligent enough to accept what is true, good, and beautiful and reject what is evil in what the Spaniards had offered them. The conquistadores were different, but the early missionaries did not force our ancestors to accept Christianity.  Dr. Ronaldo B. Mactal, Historia: Batayang-Aklat Sa Araling Panlipunan. Quezon City: Phoenix Publishing House, Inc., 2011, pages 134-135 — “Sa dalawang estratehiya ng pananakop, higit na naging epektibo ang paggamit ng ebanghelisasyon. Higit na nagtagumay ang mga paring misyonero sa pananakop at pamamayapa ng mga Pilipino kaysa sa mga hukbong militar. Ang paggamit ng dahas sa pamamagitan ng baril ay nagbunga lamang ng pagkatakot ng mga Pilipino. Samantala, ang mapayapang paraan ng mga paring misyonero na ang tanging sandata ay krus, rosaryo, at dasal ay nagbunga naman ng pagmamahal at pagtanggap sa mga Pilipino.”

As mentioned above, the article is of the opinion that celebrating Christianity’s 500 years of existence in our country is an insult to the hallowed memory of our forebears and the forfeiture of their dream to be free. Then the article proceeds in narrating the abuses our ancestors suffered under the cross and the sword. It cites “State and Society in the Philippines” authored by Patricio Abinales and Donna Amoroso in order to “provide much vivid detail(s)” of these abuses, e. g., the Reduccion, Polo y Servicios, and the destruction of native religion (the worship of anitos and belief in the baylans).

While respect is accorded to the article, but opinions are not necessarily true. So, let us answer these and other accusations hurled against Catholicism in our county. The main assertion of the said article stands on the abuses done by the colonizers. But let us view our history from a higher and wider perspective. All these accusations will eventually fall under the weight of truth.



The Spanish colonial government in the Philippines adopted a policy of gathering the inhabitants of far-flung barangays into a centralised resettlement or reductions. The reduccion was built near the church and the ayuntamiento. Other than the civil motives of collecting tributes and controlling the natives, the reduccion also allowed the missionaries to easily Christianize the Filipinos then. Also, defending the natives can be easily done by the government (cf. Patricio N. Abinales & Donna J. Amoroso (2005). State and Society in the Philippines. USA;Rowman & Littlefield, 2005, pages 53, 68).



We are familiar with the Spanish phrase “Polo y Servicios.” It is taught that those words mean “Forced Labor” or “Sapilitang Paggawa.” We have equated Polo y Servicios with slavery. That is why some find it so easy to say that the Spaniards enslaved the Filipinos. But as stipulated in its laws, the Spanish government in this country required able-bodied males to render at most 40 days for public service like building bridges, waterways, churches, etc. These “polistas” were paid a daily wage. Were there abuses? For sure there were. However, we should also ask: Who benefited from the products of the Polo y Servicios? Certainly, the Filipinos themselves. Our forebears benefited from what they built. And up to now, we are enjoying them. Heritage advocates, like the National Historical Commission, are preserving and defending them. Is this a betrayal to the ideals of our ancestors? If it is, then, by all means abolish this government which places high importance on these “artefacts of slavery”!



Although missionaries destroyed images of the anitos, the majority of those missionaries relied on non-violent persuasion to convince local converts to abandon their indigenous worship and practices. The missionaries even studied the dialects in order to effectively communicate the message of the Gospel to the natives. In other words, the natives were called to leave their animistic religion in order to live in Christ.

However, the ingenuity of the missionaries can also be seen in the way they made use of the good aspects of native beliefs in their missionary campaigns. The missionaries were not a bunch of brainless celibates, but a pack of ingenious artisans. Philippines: History and Government. Evelina M. Viloria, Ed. D., Nelia R. Dela Cruz, and Ruth V. Legaspi. Quezon City: Vibal Publishing house, 2005, page 81 — “The Filipinos readily accepted Christianity because the missionaries made use of many aspects of the natives’ former religion. In the pagan religion, the natives worshipped a powerful god called Bathala and other lesser gods. To make the natives understand the concept of the Christian God and of the saints, the friars cited the similarities between the gods of the pagans and that of Christianity. Aside from this, the missionaries allowed the natives to retain many beliefs, practices and traditions related to the old religion and adopted these to the rituals and ceremonies of the Catholic faith.”



The article also says that evangelization “was just a footnote to an imperialist scavenger hunt, not the realization of a divine plan.” In saying this it sounds to me that the author seems to have a special access to the mind of God. Anyway. We have been told that the goals of Spanish regime are: God, glory, and gold. The conquistadores came with the missionaries. Evangelization, therefore, is not a mere footnote, but one of the principal motives for which those people were sent to east (Political and Cultural History of the Philippines, Vol. I. Manila: Alip and Sons, Inc., 1954, page 109). I hope the author of the article has read this quotation from Dr. Wilhelm Roscher in Zaide’s “The Philippines: A Unique Nation” (p. 102) which says, “ The principal aim of Spanish colonisation was the conversion of the heathen peoples to Christianity (cf. The Spanish Colonial System. New York, 1904, page 7).” In hoc signo vinces; by the sign of the cross the missionaries won the hearts of our forebears.



St. Paul says where the Spirit of the Lord is present, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3: 17). One of the contributions of the missionaries in our country is the abolishment of the old practice of slavery. Philip II issued a decree in 1569 prohibiting slavery and ordering the punishment of those who would disobey. Two years later, the Supreme Pontiff issued a decree to the same effect. Thus, both in civil and ecclesiastical laws slavery in the Philippines was prohibited. However, we also the note the process of implementation needed some time since slavery had been so ingrained in the lives of our ancestors. Added to this is the establishment of schools and colleges, and the instructions given by the missionaries to our ancestors. For sure, these have helped them acquire freedom to think by and for themselves. We should not fail to note that Christianity has also empowered the Filipinos to struggle and fight for freedom against the colonizers. Historian Reynaldo C. Ileto makes the case that our ancestors saw themselves in the suffering Christ in the Pasyon they were chanting during the Mahal na Araw. Filipinos saw this religious practice from a different perspective. It inspired them to offer their lives, like the suffering Christ, for the redemption of this country.



That there were abuses during those times we do not and should not deny. We do not defend the indefensible! The Church strikes her breast as she says, “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” However, reason demands that we be truthful also. We should avoid irresponsible generalization. The abuses do not constitute the essence of Catholicism. It is unreasonable and unjust to equate these abuses with the essence of the Catholic religion. As we recognize those abuses in the past we should not also brush off the fact that Catholicism has done so much for this country, for our ancestors and which we still now enjoy. Should we allow ourselves to be imprisoned by these so-called abuses? Or we should rather soar higher and see the bigger and brighter picture? We do not deny the abuses, but using them to the detriment of all the good things that happened is another form of abuse. And no one abuses us more than we abuse ourselves.



It is easy to accuse Catholicism of these and those sins. Many things have been said against Catholicism, different accusations hurled against it. Why? Because most of her so-called “children” are reluctant to stand in her defense. It is imperative to re-examine the prejudices against the missionaries — or against Catholicism as a whole. These are prejudices perpetuated by anti-Catholics under the guise of nationalism. If Catholicism is so alien to our ancestors, and even an insult to them, they would have repudiated it long time ago, especially during the Aglipayan Revolt and the influx of American Protestantism. But why majority of our forebears decided to remain Catholics? The answer is simple: Because they did not equate Christianity with colonialism. They embraced it; we cherish it. Whether you like or not, Catholicism’s influence affected our everyday life. Though imperfect because we are its imperfect members, but truth remains that Catholicism has been a force for good in our country. The Catholic Church played an important role under the Marcos dictatorship. As the persecution carried on, the Catholic Church was the only institution that could credibly contest the power of the state on behalf of the Filipino people. What we celebrate this year 2021 is not colonialism, but Catholicism, that is, the Christian faith that our ancestors received and cherished as a gift. With all their imperfections, warts and all, we still believe that through them, in his divine providence, God deigned this country, the Philippines, to be the cradle and bulwark of the Christian faith for the past 500 years. God is the God of history (Catechism of the Catholic Church #314). Let us also pray that as the Lord blessed the beginning, He may also bring all of these to fruition — usque ad vitam æternam. It is said that the Spaniards conquered the Philippines by the sword and the cross. The Spanish regime has collapsed, but the cross is still standing — for 500 years now! History proves that indeed the cross is mightier than the sword. Isn’t this a good reason to celebrate?

— Fr. Fran Villegas

Archdiocese of Cebu, Catholic Faith Defenders, Inc.