Mission is the incessant flow of the edifying love of God revealed and expressed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This divine-human activity in which the Church participates is essentially the proclamation of and witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ (IFI Mission Statement 1976).
In the Gospel according to Luke (4.18ff.) Jesus quoted prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isa. 61:1-2a). Contrary to this missionary statement of God, the mission to the Philippines was that of colonialism and subjugation, of exploitation and oppression.
Christianity, or more specifically Roman Catholic Christianity, came to the Philippines as part of the Spanish colonial machinery in the sixteenth century. Spanish society then had already reached the highest stage of feudalism and was well into the mercantilist stage of capitalism. Pushed by this mercantilist impulse, Spain wielded its military might and used Christianity to subdue the peoples of South America and continued to set its sight to the East, particularly China, and neighboring islands for the trade opportunities it offered as well as its vast natural and human resources that they needed to develop their own economies. This was the result of the Patronato Real (Patronage System) – an agreement between the king of Spain and the Pope. Spain would propagate Catholicism in all its colonies and the Pope gave the king significant powers to select church leaders such as bishops for the colonies.
On March 16, 1521, 500 years ago today, the Magellan expedition landed in Limasawa Island and on an Easter Sunday, March 31 held the first mass presided by Padre Pedro de Valderama. It as part of the Spanish expeditions to the East that Spain came to know the importance of the Philippine islands, then populated by various tribes and communities living independently from each other and with different degrees of societal and economic development. Spain found an ideal trading station with China and other neighboring places. Spain discovered in these islands an abundance of gold and other precious minerals as well as natural resources so richly endowed. This mercantilist impulse of a manufacturing type of capitalism merged with the religious zeal to save the Indios (pagans) from eternal damnation. The sword and the cross or the military might, and religion became complementary devices in the subjugation of Indios – they were brutally suppressed by the sword of the conquistadores and by the persuasive approach of the missionaries. Spanish assault against the natives was justified on the supposedly Christian ground of liberating them from evil religion. At the same time, Catholicism was forced upon the Indios through violence. All forms of indigenous religious worship were banned, and native religious images and idols were burned and destroyed and replaced them with a brilliant array of statues of Christ, Mary, and the saints. This same zeal to convert as well as to subdue the Indios was a result of the Catholic religious orders being under royal patronage and were thus obliged to serve Spanish colonialism. It was a theology of colonialism asserted – it was better to put the natives under the rigors of colonialism than to let them remain as pagans or as possible converts of Islam.
A theocratic state then prevailed. The Spanish friars became exceedingly powerful for more than 300 years. They occupied the very core of the feudal state and the very center of the colonial regime. They played the dominant role in the dark feudal era of the Philippines. They took charge of local administration, managed, and restricted the lives of communities, amassed wealth, owned wide expanses of lands, collected taxes and tributes, and engaged in usury.
It was a religious oppression and exploitation. It provoked sporadic and spontaneous uprisings among the people in scattered places and at separate times throughout the Spanish colonial rule until the national revolution came in 1896. One of the many events which incited national sentiment, a sense of nationalism was the martyrdom of the three Catholic priests Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora in 1872. They were charged with mutiny for allegedly leading the laborers’ uprising. The native priests were reduced to mere co-adjutors (assistants) to the friars who clamored for their assignment in the parishes as curates. These gave way to the Secularization movement which created a very bitter conflict within the church that led to the frame-up and martyrdom of the three priests. This event galvanized the emerging national consciousness climaxed in the 1896 Philippine Revolution which became the ultimate process by which the Filipino nation took shape. This is our nationalism – a product of people’s consciousness of nationhood against colonial powers.
The intervention of the United States of America stopped the revolution on its track. Here was a new colonial power, driven by monopoly capitalism or modern imperialism but prettifying itself with the liberal slogans of individual freedom and a free market. The struggle for national liberation and democracy, that is, for an independent Filipino state, met a more vicious and cleverer enemy.
The United States of America frustrated the establishment of a Philippine state and government. It decisively crushed the fledging Filipino state in 1902, killing as many as 200,000 combatants and a total of 600,000 Filipinos. The new colonizer was deceptive and violent against our people which was also justified in terms of Christianity. It allowed Protestant churches to “Christianize” the Philippines after more than 300 years of Spanish clerical rule. These churches were also captives to the politics of colonialism and propagated the ideas of imperialism. Though unlike Catholicism, these Protestant churches were more democratic in giving to Filipinos access to the resources of faith and church, accepting, and training Filipino members to become leaders.
Property relations in the country did not change under the new master. The material power of the Catholic Church remained intact after the failure of the Philippine revolution. In fact, it has merely come into combination with the imperialist US. The Catholic Church retained its extensive landholdings and became a major owner of stocks in big firms. It has since then made itself a defender of a social system dominated by US monopoly capitalism and the local exploiting classes. Catholic institutions such as schools and media propagated not only their religious beliefs but also the ideas of capitalism. The feudal ideology has been made the handmaiden of imperialist ideology on the material basis of a combined imperialist and feudal exploitation of the Filipino people. The Catholic Church and the political leaders who have taken advantage of the customary flock of the church have acted as a social force within Philippine society to help preserve the unjust property relations that favor the big bourgeoisie and the landlord class.
The United States proclaimed the end of the Filipino-American War in July 1902. The patriotic Filipinos would nevertheless persevere in their struggle for national independence and democracy. It was in this period of continuing nationalist resistance against US imperialistic designs in the Philippines that the Iglesia Filipina Independiente must be born.
On August 03, 1902, in a labor-strike organized by the Union Obrera Democratica, the first confederation of labor unions in Manila through its founding chairman, Isabelo de los Reyes Sr., acting on the resolution of the General Council, proclaimed the establishment of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente. They also nominated the guerilla priest Fr. Gregorio L. Aglipay as Obispo Maximo to head the Philippine Church. Aglipay personified the patriotic sector of the Filipino clergy who affiliated with the revolution. He joined the Katipunan (revolutionary society) at the start of the revolution and founded a chapter in Tarlac province named Liwanag (light) in 1897. The President of the revolutionary government Emilio Aguinaldo appointed him as Military Chaplain to the revolutionary forces and then promoted as Vicar General of the Revolutionary Army in 1898.
This native church essentially distinguished herself from the colonial Churches, both Catholic and Protestant, that have cooperated with the US colonial regime in the country and in today’s neo-colonial intervention, by upholding the democratic aspirations of the Filipino people through faith-based progressive actions and participation in the social transformation. Her statement on ministry says, “The Iglesia Filipina Independiente, professing and proclaiming the faith in Jesus, affirms her pastoral and prophetic ministry to all People of God in a situation of socio-economic and socio-political crises arising from a semi-colonial and semi-feudal framework operating in the country. She shows concerns and commits herself to the plight of the poor whose fields have been added to another field to constitute one hacienda, whose houses have been joined with another house to become homeless wanderers and unemployed in the streets (Isaiah 5.8). She shows concerns and commits herself to the predicament of the righteous who are sold for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes, the poor who are trampled at the head into the dust of the earth, and the maiden whom a man and his father went into (Amos 2.8).”
Today and beyond, we join with other progressive Christians and churches in the Philippines in the celebration of 500 years of Christianity which is equal to our years of faith seeking liberation.
We should let the people understand that as we celebrate the 500 years of the gift of Faith in our country, we should not forget the sufferings of the Filipino people, especially the Indigenous Peoples. We praise and give thanks to God for the struggle and sacrifices of the workers and peasants and intellectuals who constituted the revolutionaries in 1896. We pay tribute to the heroes, heroines and martyrs of the Philippine revolution as well as the modern-day martyrs of the continuing struggle for national independence.
We should celebrate in thanksgiving to God and the Lord of history and commit to participate in the struggle of the people to complete the liberty and emancipation of the Filipino people.
Though, the Christian faith we received is part of the colonization in the Philippines, the pressing task of the Christians, today, after 500 years of Christianity, is to evangelize and organize the people for humanitarian response, care of the creation and work for social justice and lasting peace. This task will be done through forging unity of Philippine churches through ecumenism. The Philippine churches are more than a factor of whatever degree in the economic and political life of our country. Their distinctive and most essential function in cultural, economic, political, moral and spiritual, permeates in the lives of the people. The Philippine churches and Christianity have a pervading influence on the lives of the majority of the Filipino people.
However, we must not lose sight that the Philippine churches have been developed and highly institutionalized. They can be characterized as:
1. An institution that has a well-developed system of programs, services, organizations, and institutions, with their own structures, rules and policies.
2. Historically, conservatives and reformists, and utilized programs to promote the Christian religion, as a humanitarian response to the needs of the poor, and to neutralize and defuse the growing demands and struggle of the people for social change. In some cases, these programs were used as a tool to counter the people’s struggle.
3. Progressive church leaders also set up different programs and services that were integrated into the existing institutional structure or exerted influence over mandated programs and services. These were maximized to organize the peasants, Indigenous peoples and fisherfolks in support of their struggle for land, rural development, and basic services; to organize the workers and support them in their struggle; to fight for human rights and break fascist terror; to raise awareness, organize and mobilize the church people and other professionals; and to generate financial and material resources for the needs of the depressed communities.
4. Churches have organizations, whether mandated or not. These are groupings of church people and church members. They are usually based on sub-sectoral divisions or lay/cleric distinctions. Most of these organizations were set up to widen the church’s influence over its members and to nurture the members’ belief and sense of belonging. Progressive church leaders can also influence these organizations, without harboring any illusion that these can be transformed into organizations that can deliver the people into emancipation.
The hope of drawing the Philippine churches to favor the poor, deprived, oppressed, and exploited is still a big challenge to the progressive church leaders.
As they are organized, we must organize them ecumenically. We can organize the church people or church workers and lay leaders of the Philippine churches, but we must understand them based on their “social” status, lifestyle and commitment, as they are.
The progressive church leaders can draw the members of the Philippine churches to contribute to the ecumenical movement for change in the following way:
1. Let them realize that the oppressive and unjust system of backwardness and under-development of Philippine society is due to the fact that the problems of landlessness, export-oriented (including human resources) and import-dependent of the Philippine economy has been a policy of the Philippine government even after the Second World War.
2. Explain to them the justness of the struggle for reforms and transformation of the unjust society and the wealth of this country should be enjoyed by the Filipino people through genuine land reform, rural development and national industrialization.
3. Explain to the church leaders and members the importance of church solidarity on the care of environment, social justice, and peace. It should be done in an ecumenical way.
4. Let them respond to humanitarian concerns by gathering of resources such as material, technical and assist the needy and depressed communities. This concern must be a priority considering that the pandemic natural calamities and human-made calamities such as the evacuation of people from the militarized communities that continue to disturb and destroy the lives of the people.
5. Let their church mandated organizations link to the progressive organizations of the society.
6. Encourage the Churches to exercise their prophetic ministry and prevent any effort of the State to use the Church to legitimize its oppressive and exploitative rule. The leaders of the Churches must speak on the issues that affects the life of the poor and the marginalized.
7. Examine, reform and/or transform the religious culture. Participate in the promotion of a nationalist, scientific, progressive, and pro-people culture. Promote progressive theology and contextualized Biblical understanding, and exercise ecumenical evangelization.
8. Encourage church leaders to develop and strengthen interfaith dialogue and solidarity with other denominations, religions, and the national minorities.
The progressive church people should educate, organize, and mobilize church workers, lay leaders and Christians to participate in the care of environment, social justice and peace as an immediate concern. This means that we should conduct information campaign, education and mobilization among church people and Christians so that they will actively participate in building up of an ecumenical movement.
Reach out to the members of church-mandated organizations or Christian movements and draw their adherents closer to the people’s organizations. At the same time, override or counteract the systematic efforts of the church, charismatic movements and other fanatical groups in discouraging or blocking church leaders and members to work for social change.
Organize church leaders or church people or church workers and lay leaders to commit for their change of heart and mind, develop a personal transformation and commit to become organizer for ecumenism or ecumenical movement and to establish and strengthen “ecumenical communities” in every place throughout the country where there is the presence of Philippine churches.
The celebration is the time of contrition, amendment and to compensate the violence and abuses that the past Philippine churches had inflicted to the original inhabitants, especially to the peasantry, Indigenous Peoples and Moro people, by supporting their struggle to own the land they are supposedly owning by virtue of the principles of land occupation rights, rights of ancestral domains and self-determination.
The 500th Year Anniversary of Christianity is time to evangelize the Filipino people led by the Church leaders, as models of faith, to change and transform their lifestyle and live-out a life of self-denial and genuine service, as Christians should do, by participating in the efforts and struggle for a just and lasting peace.
16 March 2021