From Conversion 500 Years Ago to Today’s Filipino Religiosity and Embrace of Catholicism

by Edwin Quinabo

On March 16, 1521 explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed on Cebu. Two weeks later on March 31, the expedition’s chaplain, Father Pedro de Valderama, celebrated the first Mass.This marked the arrival of Catholicism (Christianity) in the Philippines.

In 2021, Filipino Catholics globally celebrated the 500th anniversary of the introduction of the Catholic faith to the Philippines. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu also commemorated the historical event at the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in downtown, March 15.

Father Pascual Abaya IV gave the homily during that mass, describing how the Christianization of his home country beginning 500 years ago –kept alive through the Spanish colonial period and after 1896 by missionaries from the U.S. and Europe – has resulted today in the Philippines’ assuming a reversal role, exporting their faith around the world.

Father Abaya explains, “Go to any diocese from Alaska to Argentina, from New York to Japan, and most of the dioceses in countries in between, the chances are that you’ll find a Filipino priest or religious sister or brother ministering to the people of God there.”

Hawaii received its first missionary priest from the Philippines in 1917 when Father Ignacio Cordero from Nueva Segovia came to minister to the migrant Filipino plantation workers. Today more than half of the active priests serving in the diocese in Hawaii are from the Philippines.

Likewise with the Philippines’ massive diaspora, it’s also typical to find Filipino congregants at Catholic churches around the globe from the Middle East to Europe to Canada and the U.S. And commonly in cities with larger Filipino communities, there are Filipino Catholic Clubs that serve their communities spiritual and social needs.

In Hawaii, Msgr. Osmundo Calip, from Nueva Segovia Philippines, was sent to Hawaii in 1949 to do mission work. During his time on the islands, he created Hawaii’s Filipino Catholic Club (FCC). Today there are FCCs in most Catholic churches in Hawaii all under the Diocese of Honolulu (serving the entire state). There are FCC Councils of Kauai, Maui, Hawaii (Big Island) and Oahu.

Some of their functions are to support the parish in its various projects, conduct a Novena for a deceased family or member of the parish, celebrate Flores de Mayo (2nd Sunday in May) and the Misa de Gallo at Christmas. One main function is for FCC members to do the rosary together.

Father Donald Calloway shared in how he was converted to Catholicism by being inspired by Filipino women praying the rosary.

He explains, “For the first 20 years in my life, I was not a Catholic. I didn’t believe in God. I went to a Catholic Church one day and saw these Filipino women praying the rosary. I didn’t know what they were doing. I never heard anything like this. And they asked me to participate. I began to go to that church every day in the morning. And saw those Filipino women doing the same thing. Eventually it piqued my interest, and I began to participate. It put holy images in my mind and in my heart.”

Prior to his conversion, Calloway was a drug addict, drug runner and served time in jail. Since his conversion to Catholicism, he’s been an author of several books related to Roman Catholicism. His conversion story was made into a documentary titled “The Testimony of Fr. Donald Calloway, which won an Emmy award in 2017.  Calloway is a Catholicpriest in the Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary.

Until today, the Catholic priest author who sold millions of books, encourages the praying of the rosary that he learned from the Filipino women in a parish in California. He says if more men would pray the rosary, it would change the world.

Pandemic and post-pandemic impact on the Catholic Church
During the highpoint of the pandemic, Catholic Churches were closed. Religious processions and festivities in the Philippines were suspended. During that time of uncertainty and tens of thousands dying from COVID-19, many Filipinos say their faith in God were renewed and praying, including praying the rosary, was something to do while in isolation from mandatory lockdowns.

After the pandemic’s critical period, today FCC Filipino women can be seen once again at churches before masses praying the rosary.

In the Philippines, religious festivities have resumed, but not to the levels as it were before the pandemic. On Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, Manila, more than 80,000 Catholics joined the 3.7 mile “Walk of Faith” procession to venerate a centuries-old black statue of Jesus Christ, called the Black Nazarene. It’s an annual religious tradition that typically during pre-pandemic years would draw more than a million worshippers.

After a midnight mass, the procession would trail from a historic park by Manila Bay to a church in the Quiapo district. Participants would pray, sing and chant “Nazareno” while marching for hours in early morning before sunrise.

Faith, Hope and Love
Some religious scholars say the story behind the Black Nazarene is a story of faith, hope and love – of the struggles in life from poverty to worsening health, and despite whatever life afflictions we may be faced with, there is still God, walking with us during extraordinary times.

The Nazarene statue is believed to have been brought from Mexico to Manila on a galleon in 1606 by Spanish missionaries. The ship that carried it caught fire, but the charred statue survived. Many devotees believe the statue’s endurance, from fires and earthquakes through the centuries and intense bombings during World War II, is a testament to its miraculous powers.

Similarly, humanity’s faith often is rattled and shaken, but perseveres among the faithful.

Liz Martin, Ewa Beach, tells of her struggle and how she put her trust in God. “I am an ovarian cancer survivor. I was unexpectedly diagnosed at 27 years old. I went through surgery and three rounds of chemotherapy. During my cancer journey, I learned to wholeheartedly trust and surrender to God. I never asked God, ‘Why me?’ I trusted His plans for me no matter the outcome.”

She explains, “Shortly after I was declared ‘in remission,’ my oncologist delivered the news of a possible cancer recurrence. He ordered a PET scan to see if there was any cancer activity in my body. To celebrate my completion of undergoing nine weeks of chemotherapy, I had already booked a trip to Kauai.

“After the PET scan, I remember anxiously waiting in the waiting room for the staff to release my test results. I looked on the TV monitor and couldn’t believe what was on…it was a helicopter island tour of Kauai! At that moment, I felt God’s presence and it was like a huge relief. I started crying and I knew my PET scan was negative. The following week, off to Kauai I went to celebrate God’s gift to me: MY health and MY second chance at life,” Martin said.

Liz identifies as a non-traditional Roman Catholic. “I believe that God is our Creator and He is the Most High. God is an abstract being, a wonderous mystery, yet He is full of infinite love, compassion and forgiveness. God is a part of my life as He gives me a sense of belonging.”

Emme Oliva, a Catholic, attends church regularly and focuses on praying during Lent. She says, “God is a higher power who is standing by and ready to help — the One who turns chaos to peace, who turns your sickness to good health, who turns your suffering to happiness, who turns your anxiousness to confidence, and who turns all your despair to full of hope!  I am a believer that with God, everything is possible!”

She said, “when God becomes part of your being your thoughts and your actions are much more focused on kindness, prayer and giving even to those people who are cruel to you. God gives you a big favor by wrapping your whole being with gentleness.  And, because of this, you feel loved and grateful. It feels good to be closer to God – God is always part of my life!” Oliva says she sees God attending to her needs and cites a new venture that she and her husband have been praying for that is now in motion with the help of Dr. Charlie and Chona Sonido.

Her idea of what religion should and shouldn’t do – Oliva said, “Religion is good when it is used to spread God’s teachings.  Religion should not cause separation, but be inclusive regardless of skin color, age and gender.  Religion can teach us how to live with God in life.  Just as what Jesus had done.”

Grace Manipol-Larson, Hilo, a Christian Protestant, says God is her personal savior and redeemer. She believes in a Trinitarian God (God the Father, Son, Holy Spirit). “God is a big part of my life.  He is the source of my strength, happiness and hope.  If all else fails, I can kneel and pray for deliverance and renewal of my spirit. Every time there’s some bad news from my family in the Philippines or there are struggles, I’ve been through or good news to celebrate, I always pray and give thanks to God.  If not because of Him, I will not be here today testifying His goodness in my life.”

Tris Sandigan, Pateros, Metro Manila, also is a Catholic. She studied in a Catholic School and Catholic University. “I feel like this is a very Filipino thing because almost all private schools in the Philippines have their foundation in Catholicism.”

Like Martin, Sandigan believes in a forgiving God. “God to me is the most understanding and forgiving person. Whenever I’m at my lows – I seek God for courage and guidance through prayer. Whenever I’m at my highest – I seek God for humbleness. Whenever I’m not at my lows and highest – I seek God for motivation to make it through the day.”

Sandigan doesn’t have one personal experience that has brought her closer to God, but she sees God in Filipinos’ struggle for social justice.

She said, “Incidences that make me closer to God are whenever I see activists in the street fighting for justice and fighting for basic human rights. During the time when labor strikes are heightened [one incident], I talked with an activist in Legarda, just in front of San Beda, Manila. He was very keen on teaching Philippine history, but I could see through his eyes the exhaustion.

“The exhaustion that basic human rights shall be fought and demanded, instead of freely given. The exhaustion that even until this day, the same injustices Jesus died for on the cross must be demanded over the powerful capitalists and government. This very incident made me closer to God because of how living through Him is manifested through an ordinary person who still chooses to protect marginalized people,” Sandigan said.

God in Society
Sandigan’s perspective of seeing God in people fighting to improve society and the human condition is one shared since time immemorial across all countries and religions.

In Latin America, there is the concept Liberation Theology – the social concern for the poor and political liberation for oppressed peoples that religion can be an active agent towards this end.

Pope Francis canonized in 2018 Archbishop Oscar Romero who is now known as St. Romero, the patron saint of the “voiceless and activists.”  While Romero did not self-identify as a liberation theologist, he was influenced by Jesuit Catholic priests and liberation theologists Father Jon Sobrino and his friend Father Rutilio Grande of El Salvador, who was assassinated. Some religious scholars see Romero’s work on behalf of the poor and speaking out against the violence inflicted upon the poor by the military during El Salvador’s pre civil war that erupted into a full-blown civil war in 1980-92 as liberation theology. In 1980, Romero was shot by an assassin while celebrating Mass.

Sandigan said, “I believe that religion should be more of opening our eyes to the injustices in the modern time and encouraging us to demand what Jesus could have demanded from them – being with the marginalized. Religion shouldn’t only be about prayers and masses; it should be more about being one with the less fortunate. 

Given how Jesus Christ lived among the marginalized and He himself was poor, to many, it makes sense to some that those on the political left would see Christ as inspiration in their struggle.

But also historically, Christianity has been used by the conservative establishment. In the U.S., this latest manifestation is in the Christian Nationalist movement. The strongest base of support for Christian nationalism comes from Republicans who identify as Evangelical or born again Christians. Congresswomen Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert and politician Doug Mastriano are some of the leaders in the fundamentalist Christian nationalist movement, and they call for a Christian-led government and sees the separation of church and state as myth.

Martin says of this intermingling of church and state, “Religion and politics should always remain separate. When religion and politics intertwine, it affects the rights of persons within that society. Society should not be governed by government officials who are unable to make decisions without religious influence.”

Manipol-Larson says “The role of the church in society is important in my opinion for the spiritual well-being of a person.  If struck by problems or spiritual plague, church brethren can inspire each other, compared to the secular people in the community.  Brothers and sisters in spiritual life are more likely to help each other than those in a social organization.” She advocates people to focus on their personal relationship with Jesus Christ and makes a distinction between spiritual growth versus “religion.”

Mark (last name withheld) says religion has done more historical wrongs and been more abusive than it has done actual good. Born into the Catholic faith, he says he still has a cultural soft spot for Catholicism but believes a future world without religion “could be better for everyone.”

He says, “Christian Evangelism in the U.S. is nothing more than a tax haven monolith that’s a business and political entity. The Christian right in the U.S. is the obstacle that enables the proliferation of guns. No matter all the deaths that keep happening. What does God have to do with being pro-gun? They are gung-ho over U.S. militarism. What does God have to do with being pro-military? They are ardent capitalists and militant against government social assistance calling it socialist. Again, where is the link there for God being against a government helping the less fortunate, and instead, siding with the super-rich.

“And all that nationalism within the Christian Evangelist movement, since when was God for any one or set of nations? That movement [Christian nationalism] is far from who Christ was and what He stood for. But these people believe they’re somehow in God’s favor and call those who oppose them, literally, ‘evil.’ It’s mind-boggling how they can arrive to such conclusions, which unfortunately, isn’t the first time that groups of people use God for their own special interests in the most warped, twisted ways,” Mark said. “I think they [Christian Nationalists in the U.S.] are turning people away from God with their bad politics and nonspiritual agenda.”

A new 2023 poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and the independent research institution NORC shows under 40% of Americans said religion was very important to them compared to in 1998, when the publication first asked this question, and 62% felt that way about religion.  

Lent 2023
An estimated 92 million Filipino Catholics worldwide (84 million in the Philippines and 8 million outside of the Philippines) participate in some way the annual Lenten religious season, which lasts six-weeks or 40 days as spiritual preparation for Easter, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This year Lent started on February 22 and will end on Thursday of Holy Week. Easter falls on April 9 this year.

Lent is characterized as a time of purification and reconnection to God. It is a time for Catholics to engage in fasting, praying, penitence and almsgiving. The 40 days period represents the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan and preparing to begin his ministry. That time span is believed to have occurred in 40 days.

Marline Martin, Liz’s mother, self-identifies as a traditional, old school Catholic. She says she prays and says the rosary every night, whether it’s the Lenten season or not. “Praying every night makes me feel complete. I come from a devoutly Catholic family. Lent was always such a special time in my childhood and even now. This very solemn season of deep reflection and prayer culminates in Holy Week when my family would attend Mass every day. It’s a beautiful tradition,” Marline said.

Besides engaging in prayer, Marline and her family give up eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Her personal sacrifice that she gives up during Lent is quitting all social media. The idea of giving up something for Lent is a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice (His accepting dying on the cross) for humanity. In place of what is given up, that time instead, is spent on connecting to God, Catholics say.

Like her mom, Liz observes Lent and Holy Week, and gives up something of importance during the Lenten season.

Sandigan says she does not observe Lent that “intensely.” She believes praying, fasting, and penance ought to be practiced every day, and not just during Lent. If pressed on what she ought to give up during Lent, Sandigan said, “I feel like I should give up my self-doubt during this period and trust God. Just like how Peter doubted Jesus, I want to recover as well into trusting the Lord on His plans for us.”

Mark said, “I am critical of religion. But that doesn’t stop me from the spiritual and cultural expressions during Lent that I take seriously. How and what I do during Lent is private. What I can say is that I do feel closer to God during this time of year.”

It’s a special time of year for Catholics around the globe and Filipinos are helping to keep this ancient Lent tradition (as well as the Catholic faith) alive and vibrant.

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