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Catholicism in the Philippines during the Spanish Colonial Period 1521-1898

(The following is a post by Hong Ta-Moore, Southeast Asia reference librarian, Asian Division.)

Southeast Asia is home to eleven countries, nearly 700 million people, and a rich variety of religious traditions. The Philippines, for example, is one of two Southeast Asian countries with a majority Christian population (the other being East Timor). According to the 2000 CIA World Factbook estimates, some 90% of the country’s 104 million people identify themselves as Christian, the majority of whom are Catholic.

Prior to the arrival of Catholic missionaries and explorers from Spain, Islam had been introduced in the Philippines in the late 14th century through trade with merchants from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Middle East. It was only later in the 16th century that the voyages of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) first brought Catholicism to the archipelago, originally named St. Lazarus’ Islands by Spanish explorer Ruy López de Villalobos (1500? – 1544), but later changed to the present name in honor of Philip II of Spain who reigned from 1556-1598. Commissioned by King of Spain, Magellan arrived on Homonhon Island on March 17, 1521, claiming lands in the name of Spain after months navigating through what is now known as the Strait of Magellan at the southern part of Chile and Argentina. At Homonhon, Magellan and his crew made first contact with the inhabitants who offered the foreign visitors provisions to help them regain their strength. This seemed to replenish their desire to push westward to the original destination of their Homeric voyage to the Spice Islands, an Indonesian archipelago in the Banda Sea where cloves, nutmeg, and cloves originated.

Portrait of Ferdinand Magellan, 1581 [Date created: 1810]. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Magellan’s route around the world [Date created: ca. 1544]. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. Image 14 of page view.

Detail of Strait of Magellan. [Date created: ca. 1544]. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. Image of 14 of page view.

On Easter Sunday in March 1521, Magellan arrived at Limasawa, an island west of Homonhon Island, where Magellan’s missionaries conducted the first mass on Philippine soil. Participating in the mass were two ruling brothers: Rajah Colambu, ruler of Limasawa, and Rajah Siagu, ruler of Butuan in Northern Mindanao. Both rajahs kissed the cross and prayed with the crew, making them the first Filipinos to encounter Christianity. Afterwards, Magellan and his crew decided to sail to Cebu to convert more Filipinos to Catholicism. The first recorded conversion in the Philippines took place on this island on Sunday, April 14, 1521 when the King and Queen of Cebu and their subjects embraced the Catholic faith during the Sunday mass. On that day alone, according to one account, Magellan’s priests baptized up to eight hundred Cebuanos.

Within twenty-five years of the first conversion on Cebu, about a quarter of a million Filipinos—half of the entire population of the archipelago at the time—converted to Christianity. The rapid rate of baptism was aided by books on catechism published by monastic presses, such as the “Doctrina Christiana,” (Christian Doctrine) which was published in Tagalog and Spanish in xylography type in 1593. Over time, religious works were also published in other Filipino languages, such as “Pagduao sa santisimo sacramento sa altar, cag sa mahal na Virgen” (Visit of the Sacred Sacrament in the altar of the blessed Virgin of San Alfonso Maria de Ligorio) (1886) in Hiligaynon pictured below.

“Doctrina Christiana, en lengua española y tagala …” (Christian Doctrine in Spanish and Tagalog corrected by the Religious of the orders. Printed with permission in San Gabriel of the order of Santo Domingo.) Manila, 1593. Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book/Special Collections Reading Room, Library of Congress. Image 5 of page view.

“Casaysayan nang pasiong mahal ni Jesucristong Pan︢g︣inoon natin : na sucat ipag alab nang puso nang sino man babasa.” (The story of the Holy Passion of Jesus Christ, Our Lord, which will inflame the heart of anyone who reads it.) Manila : Reimprenso en la Imprenta de Santo Tomás, 1854. Southeast Asian rare books collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress.

Saint Alfonso Maria de Liguori. “Pagduao sa santisimo sacramento sa altar, cag sa mahal na Virgen.” (Visit of the Sacred Sacrament in the altar of the blessed Virgin of San Alfonso Maria de Ligorio.) Manila, Imp. y lit. de M. Perez, hijo, 1886. Southeast Asian rare books collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress.

However, religion was not the only topic of early printed works in the Philippines between the 1600s and 1800s. The monastic presses also published grammar books to help priests learn the native languages in order to minister more effectively. These included works like “Arte y reglas de la lengua tagala” (Art and rules of the Tagalog language) and “Arte de la lengua bicol para la enseñanza de este idioma…” (Art of the bikol language for the teaching of this language …).

Francisco de San José, fray. “Arte y reglas de la lengua tagala” (Art and rules of the Tagalog language.) En el partido de Bataan : Por Thomas Pinpin Tagalo, 1610. Rare Book/Special Collections Reading Room, Library of Congress.

Andres de San Agustín. “Arte de la lengua bicol para la enseñanza de este idioma…” (Art of the bikol language for the teaching of this language …) Manila, Tip. de Ramirez y Giraudier, á cargo de C. Miralles, 1879. Southeast Asian rare books collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress.

In the view of some historians, the actions of the Church and Spanish colonial authorities during the Spanish colonial period (1521-1898) led to tensions and social upheavals in the Philippines. While some Filipino clergy as well as the Catholic lay population expressed discontent regarding the lack of access to proper religious training, for the Filipino clergy, the lack of religious training also meant the lack of opportunities to rise to positions of power within the Church and subsequently effect changes in their country. However, the Spanish authorities and Catholic officials feared that more education would lead to Filipino independence and loss of the Church’s control over the populace and revenue for the Church and the Spanish Crown. This was the Church’s modus operandi well into the latter half of the 1800s, at which time Filipino intellectuals and clergy grew increasingly critical of Spanish priests and authorities. One such intellectual was José Rizal who wrote the novels “Noli me tángere” (1902 ed.) (Don’t Touch Me) and “El filibusterismo” (Filibustering) (1908 ed.) to highlight the corruption and hypocrisy of the Spanish clergy. His anti-Spanish activism led to his execution in 1896 by the Spanish colonial government, which in turn made him a national hero.

José Rizal. “Noli me tangere” (Don’t Touch Me). Barcelona, Casa editorial Maucci; [etc.] 1902. Southeast Asia Cage, Asian Division, Library of Congress.

José Rizal. “El filibusterismo” (Filibustering). Barcelona : Impr. de Henrich y ca, 1908. Southeast Asian rare books collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress. Rizal’s work is also known as “The Reign of Greed” in English.

The Library of Congress has many books on Catholicism in the Philippines, both in English and in many Filipino languages. Those that are in Tagalog or one of the languages in the Philippines are part of the Southeast Asian collection, which is accessible in the Asian Reading Room. For items in the Southeast Asian rare books collection, appointments are required and can be made via the Asian Division’s Ask-a-Librarian page.

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