DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 14 March) — Monday, 16 March 2020, is the 499th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity to the islands that the colonizers will name as Las Islas Filipinas, more popularly known today as the Philippines. Considering the panic that has resulted in a major pandemic – the much dreaded COVID-19 with its ensuing hoarding which has caused panic buying and heightened stress among us – I am sure no one is in the mood to celebrate anything. Besides, the gathering of crowds has been discouraged all over the world.
But perhaps a year from today, on 16 March 2021 – when the 500th year anniversary will be celebrated and hopefully COVID-19 is but a memory of a nightmare akin to a horror film – it might be a different story. If things do go back to normal (which seems unthinkable now considering how the world has turned upside down), there will surely be all kinds of celebrations from Bongao, Tawi-tawi to Basco, Batanes for us Filipino Christians. But a question begs to be answered, are there reasons to celebrate?
There have been voices raised as to the propriety of a grand, triumphant celebration of this quincentenary celebration. Some ask – should we celebrate how we were conquered by a colonizer who treated us badly through 400 years? They claim we should stop celebrating defeats such as our celebration of the Fall of Bataan as well as Corregidor. Such mindset only manifests our masochistic perspective, the case of the oppressed uncritically embracing their victimhood. If we are to celebrate, then let us celebrate the triumph of Lapu-lapu over Magellan – the first recorded “anti-colonial” resistance against foreign invaders.
And did Christianity really arrive in the islands that day? Just because a cross was planted and a datu and his wife with his kin were baptized, na-Kristianos na dayon ta sa pagkatinuod? (that we truly embraced Christianity?). After all, except for finding the mythical figure of the Sto. Nino, there was no other trace of this new religion being practiced by the Cebuanos when Legazpi came in 1565.
And pray tell, what is the legacy of this Christianity in the Philippines today? Can we honestly be proud of who we are and how we act as Christians in the current economic and political landscape? As an outspoken Catholic bishop who has consistently spoken against Extra Judicial Killings said in a number of occasions: “With Duterte’s high excellent rating – despite the thousands of lives lost in his drug war since his Presidency began – can we honestly say that we Filipino Catholics have internalized the Gospel’s challenge to love even our enemies and not just kill them?”
Thus another school of thought is rising above the debate – should we celebrate or not? Perhaps the best way to deal with the 500th year is to label it a commemoration more than a celebration and appropriate the words of historian Vincent Rafael. We can call this an event “to commemorate Spain’s colonization-evangelization project covering 1521 to 1898.” (The title of his book published in 1988 is Contracting colonialism, Translation and Christian conversion in Tagalog society under early Spanish rule). Such a title could sub-titled: How Christianity arrived in the Philippines as a Conquest Agenda of a Western Empire. That clearly spells how the Christian religion got introduced in the islands which explains the manner we the majority of Filipinos who claim to be Catholics practice this religion today.
The government of President Duterte wants nothing to do with celebrating Christianity’s arrival in 1521. If there is a celebration, the government spokesman claimed, it is this: to highlight the historic significance of Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world – the first ever in that epoch. This is to de-emphasize the religious triumphalism that could unfold with this quincentenary and its more historic significance. After all, not all Filipinos today are Catholics, while we are majority, we only constitute 87% of 105 million Pinoys. What about the 13% others, shall they just be bystanders as we Catholics parade the streets with our statues, candles and other devotional symbols?
There is still another school of thought among Catholics, especially those who are closely aligned with the ministry in solidarity with our indigenous brothers and sisters. They claim that it is important to highlight the 500th year commemoration in 2021 and delineate its meaning for us in the contemporary era as well as lay out the missiological challenges ahead. This can only be done if we appropriate the Old Testament notion of the grand Jubilee. As it is narrated in the book of Leviticus, the Jews celebrate every 50th year to atone for their collective sins through rest, heightened prayer life, freeing slaves, forgiving debts and the like. (From Leviticus 25: 1-4, 8-10: You shall then sound a ram’s horn abroad on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall sound a horn all through your land. You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release through the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you.)
More of this in Part II which will come out a few days from now.
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).]