5 centuries hence

Published November 22, 2018, 12:09 AM

by Charissa Luci-Atienza & Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat



Gemma Cruz Araneta
Gemma Cruz Araneta

While writing this column, I am looking at an oil painting, 1953 vintage, showing nine Spaniards and about eight natives assembled around an enormous wooden cross on a beach with coconut trees. At a distance there is a lone ship with sails billowing in the wind, a gentle mountain range at the horizon kisses the clouds. In the foreground, two helmets, muskets, and bundles are stacked beside an enormous wooden chest. A priest wearing a lacy vestment and black stole offers a chalice to the cross as he changes wine into the blood of Christ. With heads bowed, the Spaniards kneel on one knee while the natives sit in the shade, gazing respectfully at the strange ritual. One of them is breastfeeding her baby. Many Filipino artists have painted a similar tableau and called it “The First Mass.”

However, none of the paintings I have seen (this one is by F. Gonzalez) indicate where the first Mass was actually celebrated because for decades Filipinos have been arguing passionately about it.  There are two contending camps—Limasawa and Butuan. In high school, we were taught that it was in Limasawa, but years later, Butuan made serious claims for the distinct historical honor. Both camps are already sharpening their swords for the 5th Centennial of Christianization, in 2021; the issue has to be resolved one way or another. For the sake of peace, I propound that the first Mass was celebrated on deck in the presence of the entire crew, before anyone ventured to go ashore.

Another controversy that has simmered through the centuries is about the first human to circumnavigate the world.  Was it the intrepid Basque Juan Sebastian Elcano? The hapless Portuguese Fedinand Magellan? Or his manservant and interpreter Enrique de Malacca? Needless to say, the Vikings and Chinese have their own theories. Allow me to postulate that the first circumnavigator was the man from Malacca who refused to go back with the Spaniards after his master was slain on the shores of Mactan.

According to reports, there is a Quincentenario Project headed by Mr. Adronico Pecho Alviso, Jr. who recently delivered a speech at a Rotary Club meeting heralding the  “Quincentennial Symposium of the Discovery of the Philippines and the Circumnavigation of the World.” I don’t know if anyone in the audience challenged him about the phrase “discovery of the Philippines” because obviously there was no Philippines to speak of when Magellan happened upon these islands in 1521.Although a first Mass was held,  hundreds of natives  baptized, and an image of the Santo Niño was given to Chief Humabon’s wife, the arduous task of Christianization began when Adelantado Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived 50 years later.

Ninety-six years after Christianization, a 22-year-old missionary of the Jesuit Order, Francisco Ignacio Alcina, was sent to the Philippine colony where he was ordained. He lived here for 34 years, spending most of his time in the Visayas, particularly Samar, where he tirelessly recorded his observations because he wanted to write the history of the Visayans. Fr. Alcina pulped thousands of notes and how these precious records finally saw print is a fascinating story, which I am saving for another occasion.

In Volume 3 of Alcina’s Bisayan history, he laments that the majority of natives in his care had already forgotten the “true God” and “true religion” their forbears had learned during the initial phases of Christianization. Although the Bisayans believed in a Creator, they had gone back to their  heathen rituals and beliefs.  The babaylan, baylan, bailana, or daitana, an ancient class of priestesses, were back in business performing cures, blessing hunts and harvests, helping the dying cross over to the after-life. Bisayans sacrificed their best pigs, chickens and goats, farm produce and offered the babaylan the best portions; they also gave them gold ornaments, precious stones, and porcelain. Alcina said the babaylans enriched themselves at the expense of the ignorant pagans. (Simony in a pagan setting?)

There were also human sacrifices: whenever a chief, datu, or any high-ranking person fell ill, one of his slaves would be sacrificed by pushing the unfortunate servant off a cliff.  People also believed that male babies born with a snake are destined to be brave and powerful warriors. Fr. Alcina reported a case of a woman who actually expelled a snake from her womb after her baby boy was born and the snake would sleep with the child. When the family moved to another town to escape the snake, it followed them.

In my humble opinion, during the Quincentennial of Christianization, the Catholic Church in the Philippines, like Alcina in 1668, should make a thorough review of the fault lines of our religious beliefs, rituals, and practices. Do we still know and worship the true God, or are we purposefully worshipping the devil? ([email protected])