Celebrating 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines
April 7, 2021 • Catholic News Service

As the pandemic roars on in the Philippines and the world, church organizers continue with commemorations marking the 500th year of Christianity in the Southeast Asian country.

“It caught us by surprise, really,” said Mark Purugganan, a liturgist at Parish of the Holy Sacrifice in Quezon City just north of the capital Manila. “We already had … started in November 2019 … 500 Holy Hours leading up to March 31. This is the anniversary of the first Easter Mass celebrated in the Philippines.”

Purugganan explained that, during lockdown, time spent with Jesus in the Eucharist became a virtual exercise with a camera focused on the host and projected on big screens outdoors. Instead of silence, vespers prayers were added because “people don’t like dead air,” which he said becomes too stark in a virtual setting.

In a country that loves a celebration, physical participation is much preferred over virtual attendance.

But one piece on social media is taking hold across the country where more than 75 percent of the population has a Facebook account. Father Kali Llamado of the Archdiocese of Manila said Filipinos are learning the anniversary theme song “We Give our Yes!” and posting versions online. The 500th anniversary theme is “Missio ad Gentes” or “mission to the people.”

“We are looking at highlighting certain aspects where we need to incorporate faith in our daily life,” Father Llamado told CNS.

He said in addition to activities on faith formation and the legacy of Christianity, the Manila Archdiocese also has social programs such as hosting pandemic vaccination centers and holding a voter registration drive for the election year 2022.

Organizers said the Philippine bishops designated hundreds of “jubilee churches” across the country to hold special commemorations on the mission theme to be rolled out over the next year, culminating in a pushed-back April 2022 celebration.

The actual year that Christianity came to the shores of the Philippine Islands was 1521, when the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, in an attempt to circumnavigate the globe from Spain to India, landed on tiny island of Limasawain the central Philippines and started to convert the natives to Christianity. More than 2,200 converted, but those on nearby Mactan island resisted and killed Magellan.

Father Johnrey Sibi heads the 500th anniversary planning for the Maasin Diocese, which includes Limasawa.

“With the whole year planned we have activities every month,” said Father Sibi. “[The pandemic] really tickles our creativity.”

He likened quincentennial planning to writing a thesis every time he presented a project to his bishop because of multiple adjustments to changing health protocols as the number of COVID-19 cases rose. Some activities include a diocesenwide eucharistic congress, devotion to the Santo Nino (Child Jesus) de Limasawa and helping the needy or “being Eucharist for others.”

“How can we be Jesus for others?” he asked.

Catholics on Limasawa island are building a “tower of light” to symbolize the bonfire that lit the way for Magellan’s ships as they made landfall on the Philippine Islands.

He said, “The tower of light … is a beacon of light that illumines not only the people of the Philippines, but it is the light of faith and the light of the Eucharist.”

At Santo Rosario Parish in the Cebu Archdiocese also in the central Philippines, pastor Father Elvin Miraflor said in a text to CNS that its monthly 500th anniversary programs are ever evolving and rolling out slowly because the situation in Cebu City, the country’s second largest city, “is still critical. The number of those infected … is increasing.”

Santo Rosario will participate in the baptism of 500 babies and 500 adults this Easter. Father Miraflor said coordination with security and health officials is a priority.

Father Llamado of the Manila Archdiocese said, “We were able to bring our own touch, our own culture into the Catholic faith, our own music, instead of highlighting that there was a clash [of] civilizations. After 500 years, people have come to accept the life of Jesus and incorporate it into Filipino faith.”

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Orendain is a freelance multimedia journalist who regularly covers the Catholic Church in Asia and the United States.