People light candles after the first of the nine-day novena Masses for Simbang Gabi at the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Manila, Philippines, Dec. 16. Filipinos are celebrating 500 years since Christianity was introduced to the nation. CNS photo/Lisa Marie David, Reuters

Christianity turns 500 in the Philippines

By  Paula Ducepec, Youth Speak News
  • January 20, 2021

The year 2021 marks 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines and Filipino Catholics worldwide are joining to celebrate this milestone as the faith of a people that has endured.

On Easter Sunday, March 31, 1521, the first Mass was celebrated on the small island of Limasawa where the Spanish and the Portuguese first arrived on the Philippine Islands. That year the first Filipino Catholics received their gift of faith.

And for the next 500 years, Filipinos have allowed the faith to propagate into history, culture and tradition.

Right behind Brazil and Mexico, the Philippines boasts the third largest Catholic population on the planet. According to Pew Research, the Philippines is home to 76 million Catholics, about 81 per cent of the total population.

Celebrations to mark the anniversary in the Archdiocese of Toronto commenced in December, starting with the nine-day novena called the Simbang Gabi, or the midnight Mass. On March 16, an inaugural Mass will occur followed by a series of talks by Filipino clergy and religious during the Holy Week. A series of planned virtual Visita Iglesia (seven churches visitation) and Pabasa (chanting of the 16th-century poem ‘Pasyón’), well-loved traditional Filipino Holy Week traditions, will also take place.

Nerissa Flores, the communications team lead for the 500 Years of Christianity in the Philippines Toronto Celebration Organizing Committee, says the celebrations are “a vehicle for thanking generations of faithful Catholics that shared the gift of faith and kept the faith strong for 500 years. It is also a recognition of the great influence of the Catholic faith on the history and culture of the Philippines.”

Fr. Luis Calleja of St. Timothy’s Church in Orangeville said the 500-year celebration is as much about keeping the culture rich for the younger generations.

“When the first missionaries arrived in the Philippines, they witnessed the Filipino ‘character’ — strong-willed, hard-working, self-giving, devout and humble — perfect attributes for embracing Christianity,” said Calleja. “This celebration reminds the youth of the ongoing mission to spread the Gospel. We commemorate 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines, and we are looking forward to another 500 years and beyond.”

Fr. Jeremias Inoc from St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica in Toronto concurs with Calleja that the celebration is as much recognizing that “the faith is still alive and part of our lives.”

What is unique about Filipino Catholics is the confident display of “sacramental character,” the indelible sign of the Holy Spirit imprinted on the soul when the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and the priesthood are received.

“The Catholic faith is not just part of Filipino culture and history,” said Calleja. “It’s inherent in them. For example, many Filipinos are caregivers, PSWs and nurses. To them, it’s not just a job; they truly have a sense of service and innate desire to care for others.”

Flores furthers these sentiments.

“Our joyful and dedicated service to the Church makes us human magnets for the Christian faith. We continue to inspire and motivate others by our selflessness, our cheerful disposition, our reliance and our deep abiding faith and reliance on God’s grace and providence,” she said. “We bring a natural human joy that resides deep in our psyche, in our hearts and in our souls. Our faith is manifest in selfless service and gratitude.”

(Ducepec, 22, is a recent Bachelor of Science graduate from the University of Toronto.)

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