In 2021, the Philippine Church celebrated half a millennium, 500 years, of Christianity. According to 2015 statistics, the population of the Philippines is more than 100 million of whom 80 percent are Catholic. The Philippines, after Brazil and Mexico, has one of largest Catholic populations in the world.
The official celebration of the anniversary began on April 21, 2021. On March 14, 2021, Pope Francis celebrated Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to commemorate this big event for the Philippine Church and for Filipino people scattered all over the world.
On March 31, 1521, the first Mass and planting of the Cross took place in Cebu City, my birthplace, 500 years ago. The seed of faith was sown in our fertile land, it took root, bore fruit, and up to the present day, Filipino people freely and joyfully share the faith they embraced wherever they are in the world.
But I could not say that it was an easy sowing. As our history attests, there were struggles. Our faith has been tested to the core and yet by the grace and love of God, which was there from the beginning, that covenant was sealed with the Filipino people.
As I look back I can see that we as a nation have so many things for which to be grateful. The arrival of the missionaries and religious congregations shaped and deepened our faith. Their pioneering spirit was the beacon of faith, and they freely shared the mission of Jesus as they lived heroic expressions of this faith and ministered to all in the society. They introduced different kind of devotions: Flores de Mayo (flowers of May), the Santo Nino de Cebu (the Philippines oldest Catholic icon), Black Nazarene, and veneration of our Virgin Mother, to name just a few.
They built churches and opened dedicated services in the areas of education and health care. They inspired an awareness of responding to social issues as they accompanied the people in their darkest moments in our history during World War II and the restoration of our democracy. Their lived expressions of faith and love had a strong influence on our culture, our hospitality, and gave us a resilient spirit which encourages us as we trust in the One whom we believe never fails us.
The arrival of the missionaries and religious congregations shaped and deepened our faith. Their pioneering spirit was the beacon of faith, and they freely shared the mission of Jesus as they lived heroic expressions of this faith and ministered to all in the society.
Another important aspect of the development of the Philippine Church was that the missionaries developed the local Church and the clergy and founded religious congregations. Now wherever you go in any continent you can expect to meet Filipino missionaries spreading the good news of the Gospel.
As a missionary myself, a Columban Sister, I am conscious of the gift of faith I received and I am freely sharing this gift with others – especially with the Christian community here in Pakistan, where I have been ministering recently. Like the first missionaries, I have also experienced the generosity, hospitality and friendship of my countrymen and women, wherever I am on mission and I can see how they share and keep the faith alive in the local church wherever they are.
We Filipinos are a people of faith and hope. We place our trust in a God who is always present in us and in all things even in the multiple crises that our country continues to face. And so, we come to this time of celebration to pray and to give thanks for all those people who have gone before us, the missionaries, Christian lay leaders and especially our great grandparents, who passed on the faith from one generation to the next.
As we face the future, conscious of our responsibility to pass on the faith gifted to us 500 years ago, and recently recommissioned by Pope Francis, urging us to persevere in the work of evangelization, I join my Filipino brothers and sisters, as we thank God and utter the chorus of the theme song of our 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines!
Sr. Anne Carbon is a Columban missionary from Cagayan de Oro in the Philippines and a psychiatric nurse by profession. In the past she worked with children traumatized by terrorism in Peru. More recently she was missioned in Pakistan until the Covid-19 pandemic. She is now working in the Philippines.