by: Fr. Jose “Long” D. Gutay, OFM

Let me begin this article by quoting from the lecture of Archbishop Leonardo Legazpi on Filipino Spirituality. He said:

The drafting committee for the CBCP Pastoral on Filipino spirituality avoided getting enmeshed in complex definitions peculiar to the academic scene. We opted to simply view spirituality as arising from a spiritual experience. What precise experience is this? We defined it as the Filipino’s historical encounter with Christ and as a result of this encounter the Filipino is invited to walk on the path leading to holiness (Landas ng Pagpapakabanal). Since this CBCP letter adopted a pastoral approach, it studied the objective of this encounter in its manifestations within the life of witness and worship of the faithful. This encounter is no illusion; it is not a figment of our imagination. It takes place in the reality of our day-to-day lives. It leaves its mark in the way we worship God and give witness to his goodness and mercy. This is what we mean by the spirituality of a people. It is a living, palpable experience that motivates and impels us to conversion.[1]

A very significant element mentioned in the above definition of Filipino spirituality is what the archbishop calls as “the Filipino’s historical encounter with Christ”. It is an assertion that the Filipino’s encounter with Christ and his response to this living experience have all passed through a process in history. The main protagonists in this historical process are the Spanish friar-missionaries who brought Christianity to the Filipinos.

The Encounter

The first attempt to colonize and evangelize the Philippines happened with the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, in 1521. But the effort was cut short by his death in the hands of the native warriors of Mactan, Cebu. It was only in 1565 and through the endeavors of the Spanish adelantado, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi that Christianization and colonization in the islands formally began. The first missionaries who launched a modest but daring attempt to convert the natives were the Augustinians who came with the Legazpi expedition. Much-needed assistance was supplied with the arrival of the Franciscans in 1578. The Jesuits followed suit in 1581. The Dominicans and Augustinian Recollects arrived in 1587 and 1606 respectively.

The missionaries played a major role in the Filipino’s “encounter” with Christianity and the Christian God. This in a way became the ground of Filipino Spirituality. The efforts of the missionaries were greatly conditioned by factors that are intrinsically woven into the geographical and chronological context of the period. The Philippines is geographically way off the cultural evolution of Europe. Thus, the friar missionaries had no choice but to take into account the unique ethno-historical character of the host territory. Although the Philippines evolved culturally on its own, this development was also a confluence of the local ethnic elements and those of its Asian neighbors.[2] And besides, Islam had already made significant strides in the south (Mindanao) and penetrated, although still superficially, Luzon and the Visayas.[3] It was also a period wherein Spain and the Church were being ushered into new historical, religious, political and economic paradigms in Europe. The Protestant and Catholic Reformation, Spain’s Siglo de Oro, the age of conquest, mercantilism, Hapsburg’s ascent to power, to mention some, were all important events that shaped this epoch. Quite evidently, the motives and actions of the missionaries were all molded by these historical events.

But it was not a one-sided process in which the Spanish missionaries shaped the Filipino spirituality. Much of the native pre-Christian cultural expressions survived in the process. Given the geographical, political (social fragmentation and political decentralization), demographical (personnel vis-á-vis the native population), and linguistic limitations within which the Spaniards had to operate in the colony, the Filipinos were provided a chance to choose from among the various religio-cultural elements being laid down by the Europeans. At the end of the process, the resultant spirituality is a syncretic blend of Hispanic imposition and the natives’ Filipinization of Christianity.

The Hispanic-Christian Imposition

American historian John Leddy Phelan’s analysis of the imposition of Christianity in the Philippines would be of great help at this juncture. Phelan asserts that Spanish missionaries viewed themselves as soldiers of Christ waging with spiritual weapons a war to overthrow the devil’s tyranny over pagan peoples and they envisaged their work as a “spiritual conquest” of the minds and hearts of the natives, a supplement to, and the ultimate justification for, the military conquest.[4]

In pre-hispanic Philippines, religion touches all aspects of life. Religion and culture were terms whose meaning was practically the same. The native culture found by the missionaries was radically religious and the native religion was the great cultural wealth of the country. There was no religious vacuum. Religion filled all corners of life. It was life, art, literature, poetry and music. All was touched by religion. In primitive societies nothing is secular.[5]

The missionaries came ready to conquer the world for Christ. The temporal conquest, through the power of the arms, had no justifications without the spiritual conquest through the power of the Word of God. Satan’s kingdom had to be vanquished. Christ’s kingdom had to be established. In preaching the Gospel to the natives the missionaries were convinced that they were presenting the absolute and total truth.[6]

However, much that they would like to launch a wide scale “spiritual conquest” of the Philippines, the situation on the ground proved to be relatively difficult. During the first synod of Manila convened by the first bishop of Manila, Domingo de Salazar OP., shortly after his arrival, there were attempts to address the problems of evangelization in view of the unique cultural and geographical situation in the colony.

Methods of Evangelization

The methods used by the missionaries in the propagation of the faith can be reduced into the following: catechism (pre-baptismal and post-baptismal), preaching, the administration of the sacraments, the introduction of liturgical practices, fiestas, etc. The venue in which the missionaries used to implement this approach was the reduccion.[7] It was, in a way, effective although the natives at first resisted it. In the long run, due to the blessings of town living, and other inducements of the missionaries, like rituals and celebrations (fiestas), new civilization was born in the Philippines. To attract and convince the natives to leave their farms, the missionaries introduced come-ons like colorful fiestas, processions, dances, theatre shows, Moro-Moro plays, etc.

In a relative short period of time a big number of natives were converted to Christianity. One major factor that facilitated this phenomenon was the missionaries’ decision to preserve the native’s political structure. The missionaries counted on the local leaders. They knew the prestige and the power they exercised over the local communities. Although it is true that the Spaniards imposed a centralized form of government with the institution of the governor general and the alcaldes mayores as heads of the provinces, all the other agents of the local government in the municipalities were natives. The barangay set-up was basically retained. The role of municipal mayors (gobernadorcillo), capitanes de barrio, cabeza de barangay were given to the elite class (principalia). The principales eventually became the intermediaries between the new rulers, the Spaniards and the local communities. They consequently became the intermediaries (fiscales) between the Church and the people.

The conversion of the natives might be caused by political advantages. But this approach was necessitated by the urgent need for evangelization. This may not be the effect of a deep and profound spiritual discernment. This would only come later, with a deeper catechetical instruction and the missionaries took this task seriously.

Religious and Liturgical Practices[8].

The missionaries also introduced many of the religious and liturgical practices that they themselves had in Spain but not without innovations to fit the native culture. Among them are: fast and abstinence during Lent and the Holy Week, sanctorum (religious contribution during confessions), feast days of obligation, devotion to the saints, and the misa de aguinaldo (Christmas dawn masses).

The Filipinos responded affirmatively to these practices. It did not take much effort to convince the natives to accept them. They seemed fit to the Filipino’s penchant for outward expressions as spiritual articulations of their relationship with the divinity. The missionaries simply substituted these articulations with the aforementioned practices. One such concrete example is the veneration of the saints that the natives eventually took as a replacement to their spiritual anitism[9].

The penitential practices introduced by the missionaries proved to be attractive to the Filipinos. A Spanish canon who was studying in a Jesuit college in Manila introduced the practice of inviting the church men of different social standing, in order to take discipline three times a week. The natives, attracted by this, lost no time imitating the Spaniards. In time, however, the spirit of penance lost its appeal, becoming in many places mere external rituals. Many who felt impelled more by fanaticism than true devotion went to extremes of bloody penance (flagellation, reenactment of the crucifixion, etc.). These are still being practiced even today.

Popular Religiosity: Filipinization of the Spanish Imposition

Phelan believes that the Filipinos were no mere passive recipients of hispanization and Christianization, and the circumstances gave them considerable freedom in selecting their responses to this cultural stimulus.[10] This could explain well the reasons why the aforesaid practices have themselves evolved into the Filipino’s expression of religiosity in the course of time.

Once encouraged by the missionaries to build little altars in their houses, the natives have easily made this practice an important part of almost every household. The painting of crosses on arms, houses, along roads, at strategic places, on top of mountains, in their own fields, etc., have evolved into a native’s custom after having been introduced by the missionaries to the devotion to the Holy Cross. The recitation of the Angelus three times a day also became a popular devotion in the poblaciones.

Another devotion that was brought from Spain and took root in the religiosity of the natives was the reading of the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. At the beginning of its practice, the Pasiones, as the narrations of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Lord were called, were literal translation from Spanish. The Pasiones eventually were indigenized, written in the local languages, and has incorporated some peculiar folk elements and values in them that made them uniquely Filipino. Another practice introduced by the missionaries that has become a Filipino custom still being done at present is the celebration of the Misa de Aguinaldo[11] or Misa de Gallo (Christmas dawn masses).

What became a universal devotion in the Philippines is the praying of the rosary. It was probably the most widespread than any other devotion. Its origin in the colony however is associated with some heroic and glorious moments of Philippine history – Spain’s victory over the Dutch intruders in the seventeenth century. The triumph was attributed to this devotion. Since then the people not only prayed the rosary, they wore it around their necks as anting-anting (amulets).

The missionaries took advantage of the Filipinos’ giftedness in singing, dancing, and acting hence making these practices more appealing to the latter. The Filipinos came up with innovations so that these European religious expressions would in effect be inculturated and filipinized. All the more that these practices became pervasive in the colony when the Spanish Church in the Philippines was institutionalized.

Hispanic-Cathlolic Spirituality

A hispanic-catholic spirituality? The natives already had their spirituality before the arrival of the Europeans. They did have a pantheon of gods and goddesses, rituals, native priesthood, belief in the afterlife, creation, etc. They did have an “encounter” with the divine many years prior to Hispanization. But the missionaries came as innovators and saw Christianity as a very effective means of incorporating the natives into Spanish culture. And besides, the missionaries were themselves product of the Council of Trent and self-proclaimed agents of the Catholic Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries. Their goal was to reorganize the politics, economy, and religiosity of the host colony. But the Filipinos too had a complementary role to play. They had to adapt themselves to the changes introduced by the Spaniards and they did somehow respond enthusiastically to the multiform appeal of the new religion and cultural imposition.

Spirituality in colonial Philippines could be aptly described as syncretic. This is evidenced by the reality of Filipino spirituality today. It is like praying to Jesus and Mama Mary with bended knees inside the steaming Quiapo Church with a recently purchased anting-anting in one hand and a rosary in the other, while wearing a western-designed pair of jeans and shirt to top it all.
[1] Archbishop Leonardo Legazpi, OP is the prelate of the Archdiocese of Nueva Caceres (Naga). He delivered a conference on “Filipino Elements in Spirituality” on July 29-31, 2002 at UST, Manila. The text is printed in the “Lecture Series on Spirituality” published by Carmelite Center for Spirituality, Manila, Philippines.
[2] The latest theory on the peopling of the Philippines and its cultural evolution is what some historians term as “core population theory”. Considered as a better scientific alternative to “wave migration theory”, the former explains that population centers (cores) evolved simultaneously with other neighboring territories in the region. These centers either influence the demographic and cultural evolution of their neighbors or are themselves influenced by the latter.
[3] Islam arrived in Jolo, an island off the coast of mainland Mindanao, in 1481. It was brought here by a certain Muslim missionary and scholar, Sharif Kabungsuwan from Borneo.
[4] John Leddy Phelan, The Hispanization of the Philippines: Spanish Aims and Filipino Responses 1565-1700, Madison 1959, p. 53.
[5] Cfr. Lucio Gutierrez OP in The Archdiocese of Manila: Pilgrimage in Time (1565-1999), ed. by Crisostomo Yalung., Manila, 2000, p. 97.
[6] Ibid, 97-98.
[7] Owing to the fragmentation of the pre-hispanic Philippine society, the missionaries decided to resettle the dispersed households into compacted villages of 50 to 100 houses to form the nucleus of the territory which they eventually called the cabecera. The poblacion-barrio pattern we have today is a carbon copy of the cabecera-visita we find today the town, the municipality, the poblacion. Where the visita was found we find today the barrio. The church, the town hall, the palengke – a loaned word for market form old Spanish – the school and the houses are all clustered around the church. The plaza is the center of the town. Ibid, p. 92
[8] Cfr. Pablo Fernandez, History of the Church in the Philippines (1521-1898), Manila 1979, pp. 157-164.
[9] The anito is not a deity but a spirit medium who functions as an intermediary between the believers and the deities.
[10] Phelan, p. viii.
[11] This is the custom of celebrating masses very early in the morning during the nine days previous to Christmas day. It was established soon after the arrival of Christianity to the islands. It is not known however when nor who were responsible for its initial establishment.



  • jose

    Spanish spirituality was no very different from the one of other Catholic countries (I am speaking before Vatican II ). This is because the religious orders and its practices must be controlled by the Holy See in orther that they conform with the doctrine of the Church (the body made with the Scriptures, the tradition and the decrees of the Conciles ). Although it seems strange for us, still they must conform with the reason and the common medium.

    When a religious order has been created (and its statutes or Rule approved by the Holy See), this institution is going to spread to other countries, carrying with them its customs, devotions…and so on. Sooner or later this exists -direct or indirectly- in other countries.
    I would say that the differences between countries lay rather in whether the country is sunny or not, whether the country is agricultural or it is industrial, whether the country has only one religion or it has several. All this is what affects the personality of people and through them all human institutions like the political system or what you are commenting here, the Spirituality.
    I must add that it is true that Spain (and through it, its colonies ) had several customs retained as priviledges approved by the Popes, like to use a pink chasuble in certain feast, but this is not the point here.

    I have to add that for protestants countries -and the culture of USA is protestant in its essence- do not have this kind of culture. So they find certain practices primitive, superstitious, odd or even gory. It is a matter of rejection as they do not have a clear foundation in the Scripture. They miss the gist.

    The so calle “primitive” people share the same kind of beliefs although with different names. They are forces of Nature that must be apaised in orther to live in peace or have an advantage.

    Concerning the “sincretism”, when two beliefs get together, they must accomodate in a rational way. The more similar the beliefs, the easier. This is a human trait.
    Here is the proof: when you were at school or at the University and you were trying to study something, you had to accomodate the new knowledge with the one that was already in your head.
    Another: Lets say that you watch a movie about the liberation of Filipinas and you have certain information from your family that say that part of it is true and part of it is not. You have to accomodate the new information. Part will be rejected, for sure, but part of it not; so the information you retained will complete the one which you had already in a way that suits you.

    Perhaps this can sound odd, but in all the Christian countries have been a kind of sincretism. Not only just after the christianisation.
    The same happens with muslim countries.


    […] [3] It was also a period wherein Spain and the Church were being ushered into new historical, religious, political and economic paradigms in Europe. The Protestant and Catholic …  […]

  • Admini

    Fr. Long: The quest for spirituality had its roost even when man first walk the earth. Humans are awed by what they cannot explain and look into the heavens or upon a mountain or big tree for answers, bowing their heads and shiver in fear when nature spills out its terrifying angst: They know that what they do not see is a bigger being; bigger than anything and has the power over life and death. And they can feel his love and power.
    The Christian campaign that went with the conquest was primarily for commercial reasons: occupy the land, get the harvest and make people subjects to their kings. Was this God’s intention or the King’s?
    The Church and the King had always been in business together. It work almost in a symbiotic fashion. It is convenient for both: to the missionaries and the King’s men who can seek absolution before they go out and kill native populations who stood in defiance with the King’s order.
    In all of the Spanish and Portuguese occupied lands, you can see this “meek submission” in the eyes of their native populations. I saw it in the eyes of people from Peru, Equador, Costa Rica, Mexico, El Salvador and Brazil, and yes, in the Philippines! This is the Catholic legacy imposed upon the world that they occupied in those days. Submit or die by the sword!
    The eyes that I saw sparkle are of those that on the behest of their Spanish masters have moved to the other side. Ultimately, they breed a mongrel population of “mestizos” and “mulattos” to preserve their agenda and cultivate unbridled loyalty into the new class of people. Mestizos became the “look-afters” when the masters are gone.
    Religion is about control: Faith liberates. Religion is actually a department of organized government. But it is independent: t has its own bureaucracy and at one time it even have its own military! But religion is always ready to take sides when it realizes that it can further their agenda and deepen its roots. You can see how religion can hold its grip upon the governments of Iran run by the Mullahs, and the broken government of Afghanistan unofficially run by the Taliban. The repressive regimes of Yemen, Saudi Arabia and a host of other countries run by the religious is appalling! All these in the name of God!
    Religious institutions are populated by people who not only have the right education but are smart, cunning, calculated, vicious, tactical, strategic and non-negotiable. A lot of the mullahs sitting in the government of Iran are also lawyers, bankers, engineers and technical people.The Koran they profess to know and love is only a public appearance shield.
    The Christian church can claim to a steady supply of these kind of men. With them the preservation of their religious institution is assured.
    I believe in my heart that there are a few people in the religious that are very deep in faith. Forgive me when I say: even among the priesthood. It has always been about power and money.
    Jesus never had money. He never attacked anybody even in his beatitudes and the Book of Matthew and Luke are all filled his his loving dialogue to people who followed and listened to him.
    In many instances, it was His apostles that are always on the look out and sometimes disagree with him. He said,”Let them sit and they will all be fed.” (paraphrased) when the apostles told him there were only 5 loaves of bread and five fishes.
    Christianity is all about faith. Myy family love God, but we do not want religion to impose its order upon us. We will follow God’s order as he says so in the Bible not from a Church as we attend a Bible-based Christian congregation in our community.
    This kind of feeling have to be encourage by Christian churches: that the church is the people not the building or the religious institution. When that thing happens the Church is fortified and made strong by the very same people that have always been looked upon by the Church as “subjects”.

    • jose

      I do not agree with you. Until nearly the very end of the Colony, the Filipinas was a black hole in terms of money. It was only kept as a country to be christianized. Only when Spain lost the Americas, Filipinas was important as was the fashion en Europe and USA to have colonies (ie: it was prestigious ). Actually the climate of the Filipinas was considered so unsuitable for the europeans that the Filipinas was used to exile politicians and the military -a punishment with the intention that the convict would die from the tropical climate or diseses ).

      Concerning to land, even land must have to be maintaind. If you can not sell the product -because there is no market for it- you can not keep it. Not only it is useless, it costs money.

      The way Catholics used to understand Christianity is as good as yours, as there is not other way to say which one is the right one.

      Actually Catholics can claim (as Orthodox, Armenians, Coptics, Caldeans ) that they come directly from Christ through one of His apostles, fact that you or your denomination can not claim.
      Through the pass of time things can change -this is inevitable-, but the Protestants churches and the modern faiths cannot even claim that. Perhaps they are more holy, but they do are less authentic.

      Christ did not have money because -for very good reasons- choosed not to work. Nobody can live like that unless is maintained by someone else. He is not a very good exemple. By the way, if I sit down, nobody is going to give me a fish and a piece of bread. On the contrary, they are going to give me a kick in the arse for being a lazy and a parasite.
      The basic tenet of Christianity is liberty. The day of reckoning we are going to be asked what we did with the talents received. We have the liberty to buried them or to make them fructify.

      There are many priests (and pastors for the reformed churches ) and their motivations can be very different.
      The commitment they have to study so many years and keep a way of life so rigorous and demanding do not allow to anyone to insult them. You already showed that you are not better.
      I do not think there is a question of money because they do not earn a proper living. More than power I would say leadership. But everyone can become a religious leader. Only it takes years of study and sacrifice. And then, in orther to be lollowed, they must live according with what they preach, a difficult task.
      Instead to criticize like a whitewashed tomb, if I were you, I woul try to be humble and try to live in the love of God. I you want a further commitment, go and help your religious leader to carry his cross. It will help you a lot. Not in the life that has to come, but in this very one.

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