SPANISH INFLUENCE ON FILIPINO CATHOLIC SPIRITUALITY
by: Fr. Jose "Long" D. Gutay, OFM
Let me begin this article by quoting from the lecture of Archbishop Leonardo Legazpi on
Filipino Spirituality. He said:
The drafting committee for the CBCP Pastoral on
Filipino spirituality avoided getting enmeshed in complex definitions peculiar to the academic scene. We opted to simply view spirituality as arising from a spiritual experience. What precise experience is
this? We defined it as the Filipino’s
historical encounter with Christ and as a result of this encounter the Filipino is invited to walk on the path leading
to holiness (Landas ng Pagpapakabanal). Since this CBCP letter adopted a pastoral
approach, it studied the objective of this encounter in its manifestations within the life of witness and worship of the faithful. This encounter is no illusion; it is not a figment of our imagination. It takes place in the reality of our day-to-day lives. It leaves its mark in the way we worship God and
give witness to his goodness and mercy. This is what we mean by the spirituality
of a people. It is a living, palpable experience that motivates and impels us
A very significant element mentioned in the above definition of Filipino spirituality
is what the archbishop calls as “the Filipino’s historical encounter with Christ”. It is an assertion that the Filipino’s encounter with Christ and his response to this living experience
have all passed through a process in history. The main protagonists in this historical
process are the Spanish friar-missionaries who brought Christianity to the Filipinos.
The first attempt to colonize and evangelize the Philippines happened
with the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, in 1521. But the effort was
cut short by his death in the hands of the native warriors of Mactan, Cebu.
It was only in 1565 and through the endeavors of the Spanish adelantado, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi that Christianization
and colonization in the islands formally began. The first missionaries who launched
a modest but daring attempt to convert the natives were the Augustinians who came with the Legazpi expedition. Much-needed assistance was supplied with the arrival of the Franciscans in 1578. The Jesuits followed suit in 1581. The Dominicans and Augustinian
Recollects arrived in 1587 and 1606 respectively.
The missionaries played a major role in the Filipino’s “encounter” with
Christianity and the Christian God. This in a way became the ground of Filipino
Spirituality. The efforts of the missionaries were greatly conditioned by factors
that are intrinsically woven into the geographical and chronological context of the period.
The Philippines is geographically way off the cultural evolution of Europe. Thus, the friar missionaries had no choice but to take into account
the unique ethno-historical character of the host territory. Although the Philippines evolved culturally on its own, this development was also a confluence of the local ethnic
elements and those of its Asian neighbors. And besides, Islam had already made significant strides in the south (Mindanao)
and penetrated, although still superficially, Luzon and the Visayas. It was also a period wherein Spain
and the Church were being ushered into new historical, religious, political and economic paradigms in Europe. The Protestant and Catholic Reformation, Spain’s Siglo de Oro, the age of conquest, mercantilism, Hapsburg’s ascent to power, to
mention some, were all important events that shaped this epoch. Quite evidently,
the motives and actions of the missionaries were all molded by these historical events.
But it was not a one-sided process in which the Spanish missionaries shaped the Filipino
spirituality. Much of the native pre-Christian cultural expressions survived in the process. Given the geographical, political
(social fragmentation and political decentralization), demographical (personnel vis-á-vis the native population), and linguistic
limitations within which the Spaniards had to operate in the colony, the Filipinos were provided a chance to choose from among
the various religio-cultural elements being laid down by the Europeans. At the
end of the process, the resultant spirituality is a syncretic blend of Hispanic imposition and the natives’ Filipinization
The Hispanic-Christian Imposition
American historian John Leddy Phelan’s analysis of the imposition of Christianity
in the Philippines would be of great help at this juncture.
Phelan asserts that Spanish missionaries viewed themselves as soldiers of Christ waging with spiritual weapons a war
to overthrow the devil’s tyranny over pagan peoples and they envisaged their work as a “spiritual conquest”
of the minds and hearts of the natives, a supplement to, and the ultimate justification for, the military conquest.
In pre-hispanic Philippines, religion
touches all aspects of life. Religion and culture were terms whose meaning was
practically the same. The native culture found by the missionaries was radically
religious and the native religion was the great cultural wealth of the country. There
was no religious vacuum. Religion filled all corners of life. It was life, art, literature, poetry and music. All was touched
by religion. In primitive societies nothing is secular.
The missionaries came ready to conquer the world for Christ. The temporal conquest, through
the power of the arms, had no justifications without the spiritual conquest through the power of the Word of God. Satan’s kingdom had to be vanquished. Christ’s
kingdom had to be established. In preaching the Gospel to the natives the missionaries were convinced that they were presenting
the absolute and total truth.
However, much that they would like to launch a wide scale “spiritual conquest”
of the Philippines, the situation on the ground proved to be relatively difficult. During the first synod of Manila convened by the first bishop of
Manila, Domingo de Salazar OP., shortly after his arrival, there were attempts
to address the problems of evangelization in view of the unique cultural and geographical situation in the colony.
Methods of Evangelization
The methods used by the missionaries in the propagation of the faith can be reduced into
the following: catechism (pre-baptismal and post-baptismal), preaching, the administration
of the sacraments, the introduction of liturgical practices, fiestas, etc. The
venue in which the missionaries used to implement this approach was the reduccion.
It was, in a way, effective although the natives at first resisted it. In
the long run, due to the blessings of town living, and other inducements of the missionaries, like rituals and celebrations
(fiestas), new civilization was born in the Philippines. To attract and convince the natives to leave
their farms, the missionaries introduced come-ons like colorful fiestas, processions, dances, theatre shows, Moro-Moro plays,
In a relative short period of time a big number of natives were converted to Christianity. One major factor that facilitated this phenomenon was the missionaries’ decision
to preserve the native’s political structure. The missionaries counted
on the local leaders. They knew the prestige and the power they exercised over
the local communities. Although it is true that the Spaniards imposed a centralized
form of government with the institution of the governor general and the alcaldes mayores
as heads of the provinces, all the other agents of the local government in the municipalities were natives. The barangay set-up was basically retained. The role of municipal
mayors (gobernadorcillo), capitanes de barrio, cabeza de barangay were given to the elite class (principalia). The principales eventually became the intermediaries between the new rulers,
the Spaniards and the local communities. They consequently became the intermediaries
(fiscales) between the Church and the people.
The conversion of the natives might be caused by political advantages. But this approach
was necessitated by the urgent need for evangelization. This may not be the effect
of a deep and profound spiritual discernment. This would only come later, with
a deeper catechetical instruction and the missionaries took this task seriously.
Religious and Liturgical Practices.
The missionaries also introduced many of the religious and liturgical practices that they
themselves had in Spain but not without innovations to fit the native culture. Among them are:
fast and abstinence during Lent and the Holy Week, sanctorum (religious contribution during confessions), feast days of obligation,
devotion to the saints, and the misa de aguinaldo (Christmas dawn masses).
The Filipinos responded affirmatively to these practices.
It did not take much effort to convince the natives to accept them. They
seemed fit to the Filipino’s penchant for outward expressions as spiritual articulations of their relationship with
the divinity. The missionaries simply substituted these articulations with the
aforementioned practices. One such concrete example is the veneration of the saints that the natives eventually took as a
replacement to their spiritual anitism.
The penitential practices introduced by the missionaries proved to be attractive to the
Filipinos. A Spanish canon who was studying in a Jesuit college in Manila introduced the practice of inviting the church men of different social standing, in order to take discipline three
times a week. The natives, attracted by this, lost no time imitating the Spaniards. In time, however, the spirit of penance lost its appeal, becoming in many places mere
external rituals. Many who felt impelled more by fanaticism than true devotion
went to extremes of bloody penance (flagellation, reenactment of the crucifixion, etc.).
These are still being practiced even today.
Popular Religiosity: Filipinization of the Spanish Imposition
Phelan believes that the Filipinos were no mere passive recipients of hispanization and Christianization,
and the circumstances gave them considerable freedom in selecting their responses to this cultural stimulus. This could explain well
the reasons why the aforesaid practices have themselves evolved into the Filipino’s expression of religiosity in the
course of time.
Once encouraged by the missionaries to build little altars in their houses, the natives
have easily made this practice an important part of almost every household. The
painting of crosses on arms, houses, along roads, at strategic places, on top of mountains, in their own fields, etc., have
evolved into a native’s custom after having been introduced by the missionaries to the devotion to the Holy Cross. The recitation of the Angelus three times a day also became a popular devotion in
Another devotion that was brought from Spain and took root in the religiosity of the natives was the reading of the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. At the beginning of its practice, the Pasiones, as the narrations of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection
of the Lord were called, were literal translation from Spanish. The Pasiones
eventually were indigenized, written in the local languages, and has incorporated some peculiar folk elements and values in
them that made them uniquely Filipino. Another practice introduced by the missionaries that has become a Filipino custom still
being done at present is the celebration of the Misa de Aguinaldo or Misa de Gallo (Christmas dawn masses).
What became a universal devotion in the Philippines is the praying of the rosary. It was probably the most widespread than
any other devotion. Its origin in the colony however is associated with some
heroic and glorious moments of Philippine history – Spain’s victory over the Dutch intruders in the seventeenth century. The
triumph was attributed to this devotion. Since then the people not only prayed
the rosary, they wore it around their necks as anting-anting (amulets).
The missionaries took advantage of the Filipinos’ giftedness in singing, dancing,
and acting hence making these practices more appealing to the latter. The Filipinos
came up with innovations so that these European religious expressions would in effect be inculturated and filipinized. All the more that these practices became pervasive in the colony when the Spanish
Church in the Philippines was institutionalized.
A hispanic-catholic spirituality? The natives
already had their spirituality before the arrival of the Europeans. They did
have a pantheon of gods and goddesses, rituals, native priesthood, belief in the afterlife, creation, etc. They did have an
“encounter” with the divine many years prior to Hispanization. But
the missionaries came as innovators and saw Christianity as a very effective means of incorporating the natives into Spanish
culture. And besides, the missionaries were themselves product of the Council of Trent and self-proclaimed agents of the Catholic
Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries. Their goal
was to reorganize the politics, economy, and religiosity of the host colony. But
the Filipinos too had a complementary role to play. They had to adapt themselves
to the changes introduced by the Spaniards and they did somehow respond enthusiastically to the multiform appeal of the new
religion and cultural imposition.
Spirituality in colonial Philippines could be aptly described as syncretic. This is evidenced by the reality of Filipino spirituality today. It is like praying to Jesus and Mama Mary with bended knees inside the steaming Quiapo Church with a recently purchased anting-anting in one hand and a rosary in the
other, while wearing a western-designed pair of jeans and shirt to top it all.
Cfr. Lucio Gutierrez OP in The Archdiocese of Manila: Pilgrimage in Time (1565-1999), ed. by Crisostomo Yalung., Manila, 2000, p. 97.
Owing to the fragmentation
of the pre-hispanic Philippine society, the missionaries decided to resettle the dispersed households into compacted villages
of 50 to 100 houses to form the nucleus of the territory which they eventually called the cabecera. The poblacion-barrio pattern we have today is a carbon copy of the cabecera-visita
we find today the town, the municipality, the poblacion. Where the visita was
found we find today the barrio. The church, the town hall, the palengke
– a loaned word for market form old Spanish – the school and the houses are all clustered around the church. The plaza is the center of the town. Ibid,