A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Butuan’s Bishops-Beliyan Dialogue

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DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 23 February) – As all kinds of disasters greeted us since January – from Australia’s forest fires  to Taal’s eruption to COVID-19 – our attention have been riveted as to how humanity would cope with these nerve-wrecking crises. In the process, some other areas of interest have to be pushed aside. But perhaps, as the urgency of the impact of the disasters may have abated, we might now look at our other concerns.

OLD RUINS. One of the oldest Catholic churches in Mindanao once stood in this place in Barangay Banza, Butuan City, built by the Recollect friars in 1625. Its belfry is now enveloped by the balete tree. The new structure beside the tree only serves as marker. MindaNews photo by Roel N. Catoto

One of these relates to the 2020 theme of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ (CBCP) preparation for the 500th year anniversary of the arrival of Christianity to our country which will be celebrated next year. This theme is DIALOGUE TOWARDS HARMONY, involving Inter-Religious Dialogue (Dialogue with other Faith Traditions), Indigenous Peoples (Dialogue with Cultures) and Ecumenism (Dialogue with other Christians).

The three Commissions under the CBCP dealing with these three areas have started to plan out their 2020 activities since last year.  For the Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples (ECIP), a number of activities have already been taking place across the country where dioceses have active IP ministries.

A major event is being sponsored by the ECIP on March 3, 2020 which will be held in Butuan City, specifically inside the St. Peter’s Seminary in Ampayon, just outside the city. Bishops from across the Philippines have been invited to an event where they will have a dialogue with beliyans (or balyans, babylans or shamans – the spiritual leaders-healers of Lumads). They are mostly Higaonons from around the Agusan-Surigao region, and some also coming from the Misamis Provinces. Patterned after the Bishops-Ulama Forum, this dialogue aims at deepening a sense of understanding between the two sets of spiritual leaders while threshing out some of the tensions that have occurred owing to the Church’s manner of dealing with the Lumads’ indigenous belief system.

Since the celebration of the IP Sunday last year, there have been localized dialogues taking place at the local diocesan level which proved to be quite satisfying and fulfilling  to all concerned. Since the March 3 Butuan event is at the national and regional level, organizers hope that with more participants the dialogue session could prove to have significant impact on how the Church personnel would relate with Lumads.

Why was Butuan chosen to be the site of this historical event? One of the major reasons is the place of Butuan in the first evangelization efforts of the Church. While Magellan reached the Philippines in 1521, it was not until the arrival of  Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1565 when the formal colonization-evangelization took place in the archipelago. Jose S. Arcilla SJ’s essay on Ëarly Contact (Jesuits in Mindanao: The Mission – Muse Books, 2013), indicated that 31 years later, in 1896, Fr. Valerio de Ledesma S.J. arrived at the mouth of Butuan River and was joined the following year by Fr. Manuel Martinez S.J. Thus began the evangelization in Mindanao. (However, it was a Portuguese missionary, Fr. Francisco de Castro who became the first to bring the Christian Gospel to northeast Mindanao in 1531 and it was recorded that he baptized a datu in Butuan and his people).

Of course there is the controversial claim that the first Mass in the Philippines was held not in Limasawa Island off Leyte but in Masau, which is just outside Butuan City. This claim, however, remains contentious. Up to today, the two schools of historical thought are still at odds and even if the CBCP wanted to resolve this issue so that there can be a commemoration of the First Mass in time for the 500th year anniversary in the actual site, nothing definite has been decided on. This is why there will be no official commemoration of the First Mass in either sites; instead, the CBCP suggests that all parishes across the country will commemorate the First Mass in their own churches on Easter Sunday 2021.

The Bishops-Beliyan Dialogue is open to the public. And the ECIP is hoping there would be good media coverage so many Catholics across the country are informed about this particular historic event. But it is suggested that those who are not officially within the network of the IP ministry inform the Office of the Bishop of Butuan as to their interest to join so the organizers would know how many people to expect at the site of this dialogue. The actual dialogue begins in the early morning on Tuesday, March 3 with a Higaonon ritual at 6:00 A.M. and will end with a Eucharistic celebration at 5 PM. After dinner, the dialogue might still continue.

From the Butuan dialogue, the ECIP remains optimistic that such a dialogue could be convened as the need arises, just like the Bishops-Ulama forum. These twin developments happening after the post-Vatican II era show how far the Church have come from the days of the Spanish colonial empire – for Christianity became a tool to colonize rather than to dialogue with peoples of other faiths and cultures.

[Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is a professor at St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations,” two books on Davao history, and “Ordinary Lives, Lived Extraordinarily – Mindanawon Profiles” launched in February 2019. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw).]

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