Catholic Church in the Philippines

The Basílica Menor del Santo Niño in Cebu, the first church built in the Philippines. Named by the Holy See as the "Mother and Head...of all Churches of the Philippine Islands".[1]

The Catholic Church in the Philippines (Filipino: Simbahang Katoliko sa Pilipinas) is part of the worldwide Catholic Church, under the spiritual direction of the pope in Rome. The Philippines is one of only two nations in Asia with Roman Catholicism as the predominant religion (the other being East Timor), and is the third largest Catholic country in the world (after Brazil and Mexico).[2]

Christianity in the Philippines was introduced by Spanish missionaries and colonists, who arrived in waves beginning in the early 16th century in Cebu. Compared to the Spanish Era, when Catholicism was the state religion, the faith today is practiced in the context of a secular state. In 2015, it was estimated that 84 million Filipinos, or roughly 82.9% of the population, profess Catholicism.[3][4]


Spanish Era

Cebu Cathedral, metropolitan see of the Archbishop of Cebu.

Starting in the 16th century Spanish explorers and colonists arrived in the Philippines with two major goals: to participate in the spice trade which was previously dominated by Portugal, and to spread Catholicism in the Philippines and in nearby civilizations such as China.

While many history books claim that the first Mass in the islands was held on Easter Sunday of 1521 in a little island near the present day Bukidnon Province, the exact location is disputed. There is only one recorded Christian Mass in the Philippines that is provable, and it was that held at the island-port named Mazaua (on Easter Sunday, March 31, 1521). This event was recorded by the Venetian diarist Antonio Pigafetta who travelled on the Spanish expedition to reach the islands in 1521, led by Ferdinand Magellan.

Later, the Legazpi expedition of 1565 that originated and was organized from Mexico city marked the beginning of the Hispanisation of the Philippines. It was in Cebu, the Philippine Church and Christianity began.[5] This expedition was an effort to occupy the islands with as little bloodshed and conflict as possible, ordered by Phillip II. Lieutenant Legazpi was in charge of making peace with the natives and through swift military conquest. To do so, he set up colonies.

Naga Cathedral, metropolitan see of the Archdiocese of Caceres centered in Naga City.

The Church expanded from Cebu when the remaining Philippine apostles were forced westwards temporarily due to conflict with the Portuguese and laid the foundations of the Christian community in the Panay in around 1570 to 1571. A year later, the second batch of missionaries reached Cebu. The island became the ecclesiastical "seat" as it is the center for evangelization. A notable missionary was Fr. Alfonso Jimenez, O.S.A., who travelled and penetrated the Camarines region through the islands of Masbate, Leyte, Samar, and Burias and centered the church on Naga City. He was called the first apostle of the region. By 1571, Fr. Herrera who was assigned as chaplain of Legazpi, from Panay advanced further north and founded the local Church community in Manila. The good father thereafter voyaged in the Espiritu Santo and shipwrecked in Catanduanes; there he attempted to convert the natives and later martyred for the faith. On 1572 the Spaniards led by Juan de Salcedo marched from Manila further north with the second batch of Augustinian missionaries and pioneered the evangelization in the Ilocos (starting with Vigan) and the Cagayan regions.[5]

Under the encomienda system, Filipinos had to pay tribute to the encomendero of the area and in return the encomendero taught them the Christian faith and also protected them from enemies. Although Spain had used this system before, it did not work quite as effectively in the Philippines as it did in America. The missionaries were not as successful in converting the natives as they had hoped. In 1579, Bishop Salazar and other clergymen were outraged because the encomenderos had abused their powers. Although the natives were resistant, they could not organise into a unified resistance towards the Spaniards due to geography, ethno-linguistic differences, and overall mutual indifference.

Filipinas ready for church, 1905

Cultural impact

The Santo Niño de Cebú, the oldest Catholic artefact in the Philippines. In 1521, Ferdinand Magellan gave this statue to a Cebuano chiefdom that converted to Catholicism.

The Spaniards had observed the natives' lifestyle and disagreed with it wholeheartedly. They saw the influence of the Devil and felt the need to "liberate the natives from their evil ways". Over time, geographical limitations have shifted the natives into what are called barangays, which are small kinship units consisting of about 30 to 100 families.

Each barangay had a mutable caste system, with any sub-classes varying from one barangay to the next. Generally, patriarchal lords and kings were called datus and rajas, while the mahárlika were the nobility and the timawa were freedmen. The alipin or servile class were dependent on the upper classes, an arrangement misconstrued as slavery by the Spaniards. Intermarriage between the timawa and the alipin was permitted, which created a more complex, but flexible system of land privileges and labour services. The Spaniards attempted to suppress this class system based on their misconception that the dependent, servile class were an oppressed group. Although they failed at completely abolishing the system, they instead worked to use it to their own advantage.

Religion and marriage were also issues that the missionaries of Spain wanted to transform. Polygyny was not uncommon, but was mostly confined to wealthier chieftains. Divorce and remarriage were also common as long as reasons were justified. Illness, infertility, or a finding better potential to take as a spouse was justified reasons for divorce. Along with those practices, missionaries also disagreed with the practices of paying dowries, the "bride price" where the groom paid his father-in-law in gold, or with "bride-service," in which the groom performed manual labour for the bride's family before the marriage (the latter custom dying out only in the late 20th century). Missionaries had disapproved of these because they felt bride-price was an act of selling one's daughter and labour services for the household of the father allowed for premarital sex between the bride and groom, which contradicted Christian beliefs.

The pre-conquest religion of the natives consisted of a variety of monotheistic and polytheistic cults. Often, localized forms of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam or Tantrism admixed with Animism. Bathala (Tagalog – Central Luzon) or Laon (Visayan) was the ultimate, creator deity above subordinate gods and goddesses. Natives also worshiped nature and venerated the spirits of their ancestors whom they propitiated with sacrifices. Mostly men practiced ritualistic drinking and many rituals performed aimed at cure for a certain illness. Magic and superstition also existed among the natives. The Spaniards claimed to liberate the natives from their wicked practices and show them the right path to God.

In 1599, negotiation began between a number of lords and their freemen and the Spaniards. The natives agreed to submit to the rule of a Castilian king and in return, the natives were indoctrinated into Christianity and were protected from their enemies, mostly Japanese, Chinese, and Muslim pirates. However, the missionaries continued to face many difficulties in Christianizing the region but these difficulties were partially assisted-with through a steady stream of military personnel imported from Latin-America who aided in the Latinization of the archipelago against hostile Muslims and Sinists.


Magellan's Cross outside of the Basilica del Santo Niño, Cebu City. The Cross is a symbol of the introduction of Christianity to the islands.

Several factors hindered the Spaniards' efforts to spread Christianity throughout the archipelago. An inadequate number of missionaries on the island made it difficult to reach all the people and harder to convert them. This is also due to the fact that the route to the Philippines was in itself a rigorous task and some clergy never had the opportunity to set foot on the islands. Some clergy fell ill or waited years for their chance to take the journey. For others, the climate difference once they arrived proved to be unbearable. Other missionaries desired to go to Japan or China instead and spread their faith there, or those who remained were more interested in mercantilism. The Spaniards also quarreled with the Chinese population in the Philippines. The Chinese had set up shops in what was called the Parian or bazaar during the 1580s to trade silk and other goods for Mexican silver. The Spaniards anticipated revolts from the Chinese and therefore were under constant suspicion of the latter. The Spanish government was highly dependent on the influx of silver from Mexico and Peru since it supported the government in Manila, the main city, and to continue the Christianization of the archipelago. The most difficult obstacles facing the missionaries were the dispersion of the Filipinos and their seemingly endless varieties of languages and dialects. The geographical isolation forced them into numerous small villages and every other province supported a different language. Furthermore, incessant privateering from Japanese Wokou pirates and slave-raiding by Islamic Moros continuously frustrated Spanish attempts to Christianize the archipelago and in order to offset the damaging effects of incessant warfare with them, the Spanish had to resort to militarizing the local populations, importing mercenaries from Latin America and construct strings of fortresses across the islands. The Spanish Empire and it's local allies being in a state of constant war against such pirates and slavers caused the Philippines to be a financial drain to the Vice-royalty of New Spain in Mexico City, which paid for the costs of maintaining the captaincy of Las Islas Filipinas in lieu of the crown of Spain.

Religious orders

The Philippines is home to many of the world's major religious congregations, and today these include the De La Salle Christian Brothers, Augustinians, Recollects, Jesuits, Dominicans, Divine Word Missionaries, Benedictines, Franciscans, Carmelites, Salesians, and the indigenous Religious of the Virgin Mary and the Augustinian Recollect Sisters.

The five regular orders who were assigned to Christianize the natives were the Augustinians, who came with Legazpi, the Discalced Franciscans (1578), the Jesuits (1581), the Dominican friars (1587) and the Augustinian Recollects (simply called the Recoletos 1606). In 1594, all had agreed to cover a specific area of the archipelago to deal with the vast dispersion of the natives. The Augustinians and Franciscans mainly covered the Tagalog country while the Jesuits had a small area. The Dominicans encompassed the Parian. The provinces of Pampanga and Ilokos were assigned to the Augustinians. The province of Camarines went to the Franciscans. The Augustinians and Jesuits were also assigned the Visayan islands. The Christian conquest had not reached the Mindanao province due to a highly resistant Muslim community that existed pre-conquest.

The task of the Spanish missionaries, however, was far from complete. By the seventeenth century, the Spaniards had created about 20 large villages and almost completely transformed the native lifestyle. For their Christian efforts, the Spaniards justified their actions by claiming that the small villages were a sign of barbarism and only bigger, more compact communities allowed for a richer understanding for Christianity. The Filipinos faced much coercion; the Spaniards knew little of the rituals inviting for the natives. The layout of these villages was in gridiron form that allowed for easier navigation and more order. They were also spread far enough to allow for one cabecera or capital parish and small visita chapels located throughout the villages in which clergy only stayed temporarily for Mass, rituals, or nuptials.

Indigenous resistance

The Filipinos to an extent resisted Christianisation because they felt an agricultural obligation and connection with their rice fields, as large villages took away their resources and they feared the compact environment. This also took away from the encomienda system that depended on land, therefore, the encomenderos lost tributes. However, the missionaries continued their proselytising efforts, one strategy being targeting noble children. These scions of now-tributary monarchs and rulers were subjected to intense education in religious doctrine and the Spanish language, with the theory that they in turn could convert their elders, and eventually, the nobleman's subjects.

Despite the progress of the Spaniards, it took many years for the natives to truly grasp key concepts of Christianity. In Catholicism, four main sacraments attracted the natives but only for ritualistic reasons, and they did not fully alter their lifestyle as the Spaniards had hoped. Baptism was believed to simply cure ailments, while Matrimony was a concept many natives could not understand and thus had violated the sanctity of monogamy. They were however, allowed to keep the tradition of dowry, which was accepted into law; "bride-price" and "bride-service" were practiced by natives despite labels of heresy. Confession was required of everyone once a year, and the clergy used the confessionario, a bilingual text aid, to help natives understand the rite's meaning and what they had to confess. Locals were initially apprehensive, but gradually used the rite to excuse excesses throughout the year. Communion was given out selectively, for this was one of the most important sacraments that the missionaries did not want to risk having the natives violate. To help their cause, evangelism was done in the native language.

The Doctrina Christiana is a book of catechism, the alphabet, and basic prayers in Tagalog (both in the Latin alphabet and Baybayin) and Spanish published in the 16th century.

American period: 1898–1946

During the sovereignty of the United States, the American government implemented the separation of church and state. It reduced the significant political power exerted by the Church and lead to the establishment of other religions (particularly Protestantism) within the country.

After American colonization of the country, American jurisprudence reintroduced separation of church and state relying on the First Amendment and the metaphor of Thomas Jefferson on the "wall of separation... between church and state"[6] (10), but the Philippine experience has shown that this theoretical wall of separation has been crossed several times by secular authorities. Schumacher states that in 1906, the Philippine Supreme Court intervened in the issue of parish ownership by returning assets seized by the Philippine Independent Church, while certain charitable organizations managed or influenced by the Roman Catholic Church were either returned or sequestered.

The provision of the 1935 Philippine Constitution on religion mimicked the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, but the sentences "The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall be forever allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights" were appended and this section became the basis for the non-establishment of religion and freedom of religion in the Philippines.[7]


When the Philippines was placed under Martial Law by dictator Ferdinand Marcos, relations between Church and State changed dramatically, as some bishops expressly and openly opposed Martial Law.[8] The turning point came in 1986 when the CBCP President then-Archbishop of Cebu Ricardo Cardinal Vidal appealed to the Filipinos and the bishops against the government and the fraudulent result of the snap election; with him was then-Archbishop of Manila Jaimé Cardinal Sin, who broadcast over Church-owned Radio Veritas a call for people to support anti-regime rebels. The people's response became what is now known as the People Power Revolution, which ousted Marcos.

Church and State today maintain generally cordial relations despite differing opinions over specific issues. With the guarantee of religious freedom in the Philippines, the Roman Catholic clergy subsequently remained in the political background as a source of moral influence especially during elections. Political candidates still generally court the clergy and other religious leaders for additional support, although this does not guarantee victory.

Today Catholicism is practiced to different extents, ranging from the more orthodox, the traditional sort, to Folk Catholicism and even Charismatic Catholicism.[9] Of the roughly 76 million Filipino Catholics today, 37 per cent are estimated[3] to hear mass regularly, 29 per cent consider themselves very religious, and about 1 of every 11 members sometimes think of leaving the church.[3]

Internal movements

Quiapo Church or the Basilica Minore of the Black Nazarene is home of the statue of the Black Nazarene, which is the focus of widespread popular devotion in the country.

Catholic Charismatic Renewal

A number of Catholic Charismatic Renewal movements emerged vis-a-vis the Born-again movement during the 70s. The Charismatic movement offered Life-In-the-Spirit seminars in the early days which have now evolved and have different names. These seminars focus on the Charismas or gifts of the Holy Spirit. Some of the Charismatic movements were the Assumption Prayer Group, Couples for Christ, the Brotherhood of Christian Businessmen and Professionals, El Shaddai, Elim Communities, Kerygma or the Light of Jesus Community, and Shalom.

Neocatechumenal Way

The Neocatechumenal Way in the Philippines has been established for more than 40 years. Membership in the Philippines now exceeds 25,000 persons, in more than 700 communities with concentrations in Manila and IloIlo province. A Neocatechumenal diocesan seminary, the Redemptoris Mater Seminary, is located in Parañaque, while many families in mission are all over the islands. The Neocatechumenal Way is a reality within the Roman Catholic Church and its efforts are mostly concentrated on evangelisation initiatives under the authority of the local bishop.

Papal visits


The Catholic Church is involved in education at all levels. It has founded and continues to sponsor hundreds of secondary and primary schools as well as a number of colleges and internationally known universities. The Jesuit Ateneo de Manila University, La Salle Brothers De La Salle University, and the Dominican University of Santo Tomas are listed in the "World's Best Colleges and Universities" in the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings.[14]

Other prominent educational institutions in the country are St. Scholastica's College Manila, Holy Angel University, Vincentian's Adamson University, Colegio de San Juan de Letran, University of San Carlos, University of San Jose – Recoletos, San Beda College, Saint Louis University, Saint Mary's University, St. Paul University Philippines, San Pedro College, San Sebastian College – Recoletos de Manila, Ateneo de Davao University, Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan, University of St. La Salle, University of the Immaculate Conception, Notre Dame University, Notre Dame of Marbel University, Notre Dame of Dadiangas University, Don Bosco Technical College, Saint Mary's Academy of Nagcarlan, Sanctuario de San Antonio Children's Learning Center, and the University of San Agustin.

Political influence

The Catholic Church wields great influence on Philippine society and politics. One typical event is the role of the Catholic hierarchy during the bloodless People Power Revolution of 1986. Then-Archbishop of Cebu Ricardo Cardinal Vidal and then-Archbishop of Manila Jaime Cardinal Sin were the two pillars of the uprising against the dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos. The Cebu Archbishop, who was president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines at that time led the rest of the Philippine bishops and made a joint declaration against the government and the result of the snap election, while the Manila Archbishop appealed to the public via radio to march along Epifanio de los Santos Avenue in support of rebel forces. Some seven million people responded in what became known as the 1986 People Power Revolution, which lasted from February 22–25. The non-violent revolution successfully President Marcos out of power and into exile in Hawaii.[15]

In 1989, President Corazon Aquino asked Cardinal Vidal to convince General Jose Comendador, who was sympathetic to the rebel forces fighting her government, to peacefully surrender. His attempt averted what could have been a bloody coup.[16]

In 2001, an aged Cardinal Sin expressed his dismay over the allegations of corruption against President Joseph Estrada. His call sparked the second EDSA Revolution, dubbed as "EDSA Dos". Cardinal Vidal stepped forward again and personally asked Estrada to step down to which he agreed at around noon of January 20, 2001, after five continuous days of protest at the EDSA Shrine . His Vice-President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, succeeded him immediately and was sworn in on the terrace of the Shrine in front of Cardinal Sin.

On the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared three days of national mourning, and was one of many dignitaries at his funeral in Vatican City.

Political turmoil in the Philippines widened the rift between the State and the Church. Arroyo's press secretary Ignacio Bunye called the bishops and priests who attended an anti-Arroyo protest as hypocrites and 'people who hide their true plans'. The Philippine Church strongly opposed the Reproductive Health Bill, which is commonly known as RH Bill.[17] The country's populace–80% of which self-identify as Catholic–was deeply divided in its opinions over the issue.[18]

Marian devotion

Our Lady of Peñafrancia has almost five to nine million devotees attending its annual feast in Naga City.
Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary of La Naval de Manila, the grandest Marian icon in the Philippines.

The Philippines has shown a strong devotion to Mary, evidenced by her patronage of various towns and locales nationwide. Particularly, there are pilgrimage sites where each town has created their own versions of Mary. With Spanish regalia, indigenous miracle stories, and Asian facial features, Filipino Catholics have created hybridized, localized images, the popular devotions to which have been recognized by various Popes.

Filipino Marian images with an established devotion have generally received a Canonical Coronation, with the icon's principal shrine being customarily elevated to the status of minor basilica. Below are some pilgrimage sites and the year they received a canonical blessing:

Religious observances

The image of the Nuestra Señora Virgen del Santissimo Rosario, Reina de Caracol, the patroness of Rosario, Cavite on her feast day, which marks the start of the Caracol dance performed in her honour.

Roman Catholic holy days, such as Christmas, Good Friday, etc. are observed as national holidays, with local saints' days being observed as holidays in different towns and cities. The Hispanic-influenced custom of holding fiestas in honour of patron saints have become an integral part of Filipino culture, as it allows for communal celebration as well as serving as a time marker for the year. A nationwide fiesta occurs every third Sunday of January, on the country-specific Feast of the Santo Niño de Cebú. The largest celebrations are the Sinulog Festival in Cebu City, the Ati-Atihan in Kalibo, Aklan and the Dinagyang in Iloilo City (which is instead held on the fourth Sunday of January).

With regard to most holy days of obligation, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) granted dispensation on all the faithful who cannot attend masses on these days, except for the following yuletide observances:

In 2001, the CBCP also approved a reform in the liturgical calendar, which included the Feasts of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Maximilian Kolbe, Rita of Cascia, Ezequiel Moreno and many others in its list of obligatory memorials.

Filipino diaspora

Overseas Filipinos have spread Filipino culture worldwide, and have brought Filipino Catholicism with them. Filipinos have established two shrines in the Chicago Metropolitan Area: one at St. Wenceslaus dedicated to Santo Niño de Cebú, as well as another at St. Hedwig's with its statue to Our Lady of Manaoag. The Filipino community in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York has the San Lorenzo Ruiz Chapel (New York City) for its apostolate.

Ecclesiastical territories

The Catholic Church in the Philippines is organized into 72 dioceses in 16 Ecclesiastical Provinces, as well as 7 Apostolic Vicariates and a Military Ordinariate.

Ecclesiastical provinces

Apostolic vicariates


See also


  1. Basilica del Santo Niño is named by the Vatican as "mother and head of all churches in the Philippines" (mater et caput... omnium ecclesiarum Insularum Philippinarum). See Ut clarificetur
  2. "Philippines still top Christian country in Asia, 5th in world". Inquirer Global Nation. December 21, 2011.
  3. 1 2 3 "Filipino Catholic population expanding, say Church officials".
  4. Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths, Pew Research. July 19, 2012.
  5. 1 2 "Cebu—Cradle of the Philippine Church and Seat of Far-East Christianity." International Eucharistic Congress 2016, December 4, 2014, accessed December 4, 2014,
  6. Goldberg 1987, p. 10
  7. Sison 1988, p. 14
  8. Bacani 1987, p. 75
  9. "Filipinos as Christians". Camperspoint Philippines. February 17, 2004. Retrieved on April 2, 2013. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  10. 1 2 "Apostle Endangered". Time, December 7, 1970. Retrieved April 13, 2007. Archived February 14, 2011, at WebCite
  11. CBCP: Pope Francis may visit Philippines in 2016
  14. Top Universities Archived January 25, 2010, at WebCite
  15. Briefly In Religion
  17. "Church to continue opposition vs RH bill passage". SunStar. August 16, 2011. Retrieved December 20, 2011.
  18. Dentsu Communication Institute Inc., Research Centre for Japan (2006)(Japanese)

External links

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