The Arrival of Christianity in the Philippines


Brother Iñigo Riola y Rodillo, FSC

2021 is a special year. It is special not just because we are seeing a bit of the light at the end of this pandemic tunnel. It is special because this year the Catholic Church in the Philippines is commemorating the 500 years of the arrival of Christianity in the archipelago. Aside from this, the country is also commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Filipino victory at Mactan, the Philippine part in the story of the first circumnavigation of the world. On other side of the world, in Spain and Portugal, they are commemorating the 500th anniversary of the expedition of Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastián Elcano who sailed from Seville in 1519 and ended in 1522 after circling the globe. Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who sailed under the Spanish flag, did not complete the global expedition because he was killed in the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines by the forces of Lapu-Lapu. Only the Spanish Captain Elcano led the last remaining ship of the original five back to Iberian Peninsula in 1522. 

The island of Cebu with Mactan Island center right with the city of Lapu Lapu

Different Viewpoints. The event that we are commemorating can be viewed from different perspectives. Iberians would understandably highlight the success of the circumnavigation launched in the early sixteenth century. Filipinos have our own point of view of the historical events of 1521.

The current Philippine government published an Executive Order this year, which advocates a Filipino-centric point of view of the first circumnavigation of the world, highlighting the magnanimity, compassion, and humanity of our Filipino ancestors in helping the starving crew of Magellan and Elcano and the bravery of the warriors of Lapu-Lapu in Mactan Island, which has inspired Filipino heroes and martyrs past and present. Lapu-Lapu was the datu, or ruler, of the island of Mactan. He was the rival of the rajah, or king, Humabon of the neighboring island of Cebu. Rajah Humabon became an ally of Magellan and agreed to be baptized. Several historians believe that Rajah Humabon was the reason why Magellan fought in the Battle of Mactan. Historians see Rajah Humabon’s conversion to Christianity as a way for him to forge relations with Magellan in order to ask the Portuguese explorer’s assistance in Humabon’s campaign against Lapu-Lapu. The Battle of Mactan happened on April 27, 1521. Lapu-Lapu and his warriors killed Magellan and defeated the Spanish forces. Lapu-Lapu’s victory ended Magellan’s ambition to circumnavigate the world. 

Monument to Lapu Lapu with the monument to Magellan in the background

For the Filipino Christians, 1521 is important, as it is the year when the Gospel of Jesus Christ first arrived in our islands. When Magellan arrived in Cebu, then a flourishing trading center in maritime Southeast Asia, he met and became friends with Rajah Humabon. Subsequently, the Rajah and his wife agreed to be baptized by the chaplain of the Spanish fleet. Magellan also planted a cross on Cebu to mark the arrival of Christianity in the island. He also gave the Queen of Cebu an image of the Santo Niño, the Holy Child Jesus, as a baptismal gift. Both the cross planted by Magellan and the original image of the Santo Niño are still venerated in Cebu. Every January, there is a big feast in Cebu in honor of the Santo Niño called the Sinulog. I attended the Sinulog a few years ago and joined the procession of 3 million people. To put it into perspective, the population of Cebu City is about 1 million.

Santo Niño of Cebu

A Meeting Point. We can see that there are different points of view when we talk about the events of 1521. Yet all of these viewpoints converge to a single meeting point: that Christianity arrived in the Philippines in 1521, brought by Spanish and Portuguese explorers, and accepted by the people of the archipelago of what we now know as the Philippines. This is a historical fact that we cannot deny or disregard. Some people would ask why do we celebrate the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines, a religion that was brought by the colonizers in 1521. Filipino historian, Ambeth Ocampo, explains that technically Magellan was not a colonizer, he was an explorer. The Spanish colonization of the Philippines did not begin in 1521. It began almost half a century later, in 1565, with the arrival of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. But even the conquest of the Philippines is fundamentally different from other Spanish conquests. According to the Dominican historian, Lucio Gutierrez: “the conquest of the Philippines was due fundamentally not to the sword of the conquistador but to the cross of the missionary.”

Colonizing Christianity. The events of 1521 is best signified by the commemorative mission cross commissioned by the Archdiocese of Manila.

This cross is inscribed with the name of Jesus and Mary in Roman letters and the ancient Tagalog script called Bayabayin. It symbolizes the encounter, the meeting point, between the faith brought by early missionaries and the Filipinos. I also believe that this is a good representation of how the Filipinos “colonized” Christianity: how we received a foreign faith and made it our own through our festivals, devotions, dances, and songs.

Today, 500 years after 1521, the Filipinos are in another meeting point. Most of us know the story of the Filipino diaspora. In every country that you visit, you would most probably meet a Filipino. 500 years after the Christian faith arrived in our shores, the Filipinos now are the missionaries, whether officially or unofficially. We are the bearers of the Gospel to many parts of the world, in different meeting points of many cultures, traditions, and ideologies.

People from the Philippines in Hong Kong

I would like to end with a quote from the homily of Pope Francis on March 14. He said: “five hundred years have passed since the Christian message first arrived in the Philippines. You received the joy of the Gospel… And this joy is evident in your people… In the joy with which you bring your faith to other lands. Keep bringing the faith, the good news you received five hundred years ago, to others. I want to thank you, then, for the joy you bring to the whole world and to our Christian communities.”

Maraming salamat po. Thank you very much. Mabuhay tayong lahat!

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons, Brother Dan Fenton, F.S.C., and Brother Iñigo Riola, F.S.C.

One thought on “The Arrival of Christianity in the Philippines

  1. Brother Bernard LoCoco says:

    Thank you Inigo for such a wonderful presentation. I appreciated the fact that you offered more than one perspective and the clarification of colonization,

    Brother Bernard


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