Monday, August 12, 2013

Catholicism in the Philippines

By Tetchie Herrera

When the Spaniards came and colonized the Philippines almost 500 years ago, one of their purposes was to Christianize the people of the islands.  This was besides establishing Spanish control and getting a share in the spice trade.

Because of the lack of a central government in the Philippines, as in nearby Southeast Asian countries, the colonists were able to convert many indigenous inhabitants, mostly in the central islands, primarily Cebu where Magellan landed.  However, not all Filipino Muslims were converted as witnessed by the frequent “Moro Wars” that the Spanish fought in their 300-year colonial rule.  Nor were the Spaniards successful in subjugating the mountain tribes of Luzon in the north, because of their difficult mountainous terrain.  (Source: Wikipedia references)


In reality, Filipinos adapted the new religion to their indigenous beliefs, weaving animistic beliefs and Christian traditional and biblical stories into a cross-breed type of Filipino Catholicism.  This is evident in their expressions, such as Bahala Na, which translates literally as "leave it up to God (Bathala)." The word for God in the animistic religion was Bathala, which was Sanskrit in origin.  The indigenous Filipinos recognized Bathala as the creator of mankind and worshipped their god indirectly through anitos.  They believed that the souls of their dead ancestors became anitos and interceded for them to Bathala. When the Spaniards outlawed the wooden images of anitos as idols, they made an exception for the worship of Bathala, who they considered as a not-objectionable reference for God.  (Source: Wikipedia references)


Source: Bathala, Wikipedia,

With the introduction of images for Catholic saints, the Filipino penchant for praying to anitos to intercede for them to God was transferred to carved images of the saints.  In Catholic processions, such as those in the provinces, statues of the patron saints of a particular town or city are paraded through the streets during fiestas.  The most popular of these is the Obando fertility rites where men, women and children dance with the statue of Santa Clara “in order for the spirit of life to enter the wombs of women” (Source: Infertility Philippines).

In Santacruzan, (Discovery of the Holy Cross) the last May procession for Flores de Mayo (flowers of May), a month-long celebration dedicated to Mary the mother of Jesus, many images are paraded.  This is after the procession of various costumed women depicting Reyna Elena (Queen [Empress] Helena), carrying a small cross, and escorted by her son, Constantine, usually a boy.  This is to celebrate the finding of the relics of the true holy cross by Empress Helena, the mother of Greek Emperor Constantine the Great.  Most of the images are those of the Santo Nino (Holy Child), in all sizes and bedecked in various jewel-studded costumes and jeweled crowns, taken from their “thrones” from the houses of various Filipina matrons, vying for the best-dressed imahen (image) of the Christ Jesus.


In January, there is usually an Ati-Atihan Festival, where small-statured people in indigenous costumes and weapons, in dark make-up, dance and chant to indigenous music, carrying images of the Santo Nino (Holy Child), on the street.  Historians trace this festival to a pagan ritual where the indigenous Aeta or Ati tribes of Panay Island in the Philippines, who were animists, worshipped their anito god.  When the Spaniards came, this was translated to the Christian god and gradually acquired a different meaning as a Christian festival (Source: Ati-Atihan Festival, Wikipedia).

Richard Borja, 30, portraying Jesus Christ, is whipped by a man portraying a Roman soldier during ahead of Good Friday in Mandaluyong city, metro Manila April 5, 2012. REUTERS-Romeo Ranoco

Richard Borja, 30, portraying Jesus Christ, is whipped by a man portraying a Roman soldier during ahead of Good Friday in Mandaluyong City, Metro Manila April 5, 2012. (REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco)

The Lenten season during Holy Week that recapitulates the carrying of the Cross to Calvary is celebrated in a unique way in the Philippines.  Last year, Reuters reported this: “Hundreds of barefoot Filipinos marched on roads, carrying heavy wooden crosses and whipping their backs until they bled on Thursday in an annual gory religious ritual as the mainly Catholic Philippines observed near the end of the Lenten season. (Source: Filipino Catholics observe Lent with gory rituals,, Mabalacat, Philippines, April 5, 2012)  The article quoted a spokesman of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, as saying that the Church has discouraged the practices, describing them as "inappropriate".  A pastor at a local Methodist Church was also quoted as saying that the practice cannot be easily relinquished as it has already been embedded in the local culture (ibid).

Such rituals outside the Christian tradition have made the Filipino practice of the Catholic/Christian religion uniquely their own.  This could be considered the Filipino people’s cultural application of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, “The Church in the Modern World” to their religion and their worship of God in their own way.  (Next week: Filipino Practices and Superstitious Beliefs)


Terri said...

This is fantastic!

Unknown said...
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