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 to conversion.[1]


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 Encounter


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.[2]  And besides, Islam had already made significant strides in the south (Mindanao) and penetrated, although still superficially, Luzon and the Visayas.[3]  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--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 of Christianity.



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.[4] 


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.[5]


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.[6]


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.[7]  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, etc.


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[8].


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[9]. 


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.[10]  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 the poblaciones.


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[11] 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.



Hispanic-Cathlolic Spirituality


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.


[1] Archbishop Leonardo Legazpi, OP is the prelate of the Archdiocese of Nueva Caceres (Naga).  He delivered a conference on “Filipino Elements in Spirituality” on July 29-31, 2002 at UST, Manila.  The text is printed in the “Lecture Series on Spirituality” published by Carmelite Center for Spirituality, Manila, Philippines.

[2] The latest theory on the peopling of the Philippines and its cultural evolution is what some historians term as “core population theory”.  Considered as a better scientific alternative to “wave migration theory”, the former explains that population centers (cores) evolved simultaneously with other neighboring territories in the region.  These centers either influence the demographic and cultural evolution of their neighbors or are themselves influenced by the latter.

[3] Islam arrived in Jolo, an island off the coast of mainland Mindanao, in 1481.  It was brought here by a certain Muslim missionary and scholar, Sharif Kabungsuwan from Borneo.

[4] John Leddy Phelan, The Hispanization of the Philippines: Spanish Aims and Filipino Responses 1565-1700, Madison 1959, p. 53.

[5] Cfr. Lucio Gutierrez OP in The Archdiocese of Manila: Pilgrimage in Time (1565-1999), ed. by Crisostomo Yalung.,  Manila, 2000, p. 97.

[6] Ibid, 97-98.

[7] 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, p. 92

[8] Cfr.  Pablo Fernandez, History of the Church in the Philippines (1521-1898), Manila 1979, pp. 157-164.

[9] The anito is not a deity but a spirit medium who functions as an intermediary between the believers and the deities.

[10] Phelan, p. viii.

[11] This is the custom of celebrating masses very early in the morning during the nine days previous to Christmas day.  It was established soon after the arrival of Christianity to the islands.  It is not known however when nor who were responsible for its initial establishment.