A woman prays during Ash Wednesday Mass at the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Manila, Philippines, Feb. 26, 2020. CNS photo/Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

Editorial: The gift of faith

  • April 15, 2021

No one is exactly sure what was going through the mind of explorer Ferdinand Magellan when he landed on the island of Cebu in the Philippines in March of 1521.

After more than a year and a half at sea, surviving a mutiny attempt and his men nearing starvation, all the while looking for a western route to the Spice Islands, it could be the Portuguese explorer just needed a break before a final push.

But Magellan was also a man of deep faith and he regarded converting Indigenous people to Catholicism as part of his mission. Cebu’s Chief Humabon was apparently a willing convert, as were many of his subjects.

Magellan’s legacy with the Philippines is checkered at best (more often he’s portrayed as an invader than explorer), but the Christian faith he planted there has more than withstood the test of time. Subsequent visits by Spanish missionaries forged deep Catholic roots that took hold with more evangelizing strength than in many other parts of the world.

Five hundred years later, the Filipino people stand as shining examples of the living faith. The Philippines is home to more than 89 million Catholics, more than any other country except Brazil and Mexico. Closer to home, there are upwards of 850,000 Filipino-Canadians, about a third of them in the Greater Toronto Area. More than 80 per cent identify as Catholic.

“Be grateful for the gift of faith,” Pope Francis said in a video last week as the country’s bishops opened “holy doors” to mark the 500th anniversary. “Thank God for the people who gave you the faith and for all those to whom you will pass it on in turn.”

Popes have long recognized the importance of the Philippines to the Church, and it is always on the short list for potential papal visits. The first was by Pope Paul VI in 1970. Pope John Paul II made two visits, the second in 1995 for World Youth Day. Ten years later, Pope Francis made a five-day visit that ended with reportedly up to seven million attending his final Mass in Manila.

As for Magellan, he did not live long enough to see Christianity take hold. A month after presenting Humabon with a statue of the child Jesus on the day the chief was baptized, Magellan was killed in battle on a neighbouring island. Given the turbulent history of the expedition, it’s a wonder the appetite for Catholicism took hold at all.

Yet it did, and way beyond the physical boundaries of the country. Hundreds of years and generations later, the Filipino people have harnessed their faith for good in their homeland and in their adopted countries. Their devotion to Mary and the Holy Child gave birth to traditions like the Flores de Mayo, the Black Nazarene and, at Christmas time, the Simbang Gabi novena.

In celebrating the anniversary with a Mass in St. Peter’s last month, the Pope equated the people’s joy with the joy of the Gospel. “We see it in your eyes, on your faces, in your songs and in your prayers. I want to thank you for the joy you bring to the whole world and to our Christian communities.”

Amen to that.

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