The first Holy Mass was celebrated not in the Visayas but in Mindanao because that historical event, that first step to staking territory in the name of God and King, occurred not in Limasawa which is part of the Visayas, but in Butuan (Mazaua) situated in northern Mindanao. Please do not think that I am unilaterally and presumptuously overturning the final decision of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (formerly called National Historical Institute).
When bona fide historians clash swords, gore each other with codices, translations and digital copies in hi-resolution, stab with cartographic rolls unearthed in eminent archives, brandish ancient eye-witness accounts, it is best for humble history buffs like me to take cover and watch from a safe distance.
Auspiciously on St. Valentine’s Day, I received a 609-page book, An Island They Called Mazaua, The Truth About the Site of the First Holy Mass in the Philippines, by Fr. Joesilo C. Amalla. He is a Roman Catholic priest of the Butuan diocese who has spent the last 46 years researching about this profoundly controversial matter. As it turns out, neither the state nor the church can ignore the issue because its roots take us back to the era of the Patronato Real when church and state were so tightly enmeshed in conquest and Christianization, they acted as one. Today, there are mute clashes within the church itself as some of its members side with a state agency in this debate about where the First Holy Mass was celebrated. Others are on Fr. Joesilo Amalla’s side.
In several parts of his book, the author mentions Fr. Miguel Bernad, SJ, who visited the island of Limasawa in 1978 after which he wrote that Ferdinand Magellan dropped anchor there as “…It has a good harbor protected on the west by Panaon Island…” Fr. Amalla contends: “The 16th century Magellanic boats were wooden vessels weighing from 75 to 110 tons, heavy with bulky ballasted water contraptions. They would have touched bottom, run aground, and sank had they been forced to drop anchor on Limasawa’s shallow, coral-studded reefs.”
When the remains of the Butuan plank boats were discovered in the 1980’s by archaeologists of the National Museum, the First Mass controversy was rekindled.The amazing find bolstered Fr. Amalla’s assertion that it was a geodetic impossibility for Magellan to land at Limasawa, an elongated island, with perilous coral reefs. It was never a port or harbor since time immemorial. Butuan at the mouth of an eponymous bay and its Mazaua island was where Magellan dropped anchor, “…precisely because it was an ancient port that had been trading with China and beyond since time immemorial.”
To further prove his point, the author maintains that even today, the Limasawa shoreline is unsuitable for docking. In 1981, 300 pilgrims from Cebu City, aboard a “Love Boat.” sailed to Limasawa but could not even get near the island, so pump boats had to be hired on the spot to ferry them to shore. Catholic priests and their flock who want to attend the Sinugdan festival every March have to be flown in by helicopter or transported aboard small Philippine Navy vessels.
The “plot” thickened with politics: In 2018, the Department of Transportation and Communications opened the bid for a Limasawa port. Fr. Amalla was convinced that that was yet another maneuver to strengthen Limasawa’s claim to the First Mass. His infallible argument against that is the configuration of the island itself. So, the State had to invent a “Port of Limasawa” at Saub Point in the western coastline of Barangay Triana. According to the author, the location is a “topographic misfit” due to the direction of the winds. Sooner than later, the port was transferred to the east side, at Barangay Magallanes. To diminish the heat of the debate, the Diocese of Maasin made a Solomonic decision and gave importance to both sites– to Barangay Triana on the west side because of the parish church and rectory and to Barangay Magallanes on the east side where stands the shrine to the First Mass.
However, the debate has officially ended and Limasawa won. Through the years, the NHI/NHCP had formed panels of experts to deliberate on this issue. In 1995,the panel was headed by no less than a justice of the Supreme Court, the honorable Emilio Gancayco. The unanimous decision was that Limasawa was where the first Holy Mass was celebrated.
In 2008, a second panel led by Dr. Benito Legarda Jr., affirmed the decision of the Gancayco panel — Limasawa, not Butuan. Last year, the National Quincentennial Committee instructed the NHCP to form yet another panel with Dr Resil Mojares at the helm. He is an eminent historian from Cebu, a worthy recipient of the Order of the National Artist for Historical Literature. The Mojares panel upheld the conclusions of its predecessors. In effect, the state has spoken in favor of Limasawa.
As for the Catholic Church, we have Fr. Amalla’s monumental work, though it does not bear an “Imprimatur.” However, at one point, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines did say that the pro-Butuan side should be thoroughly studied. I wonder if the Church Historians Association of the Philippines ever discussed this matter, or if they have published a position paper.
Pigafetta may have recorded that the First Mass was celebrated on 31 March 1521 in a place he identified as Mazaua; but he wrote in Italian and many significant details may have been lost in a series of translations made in England, France, and heaven knows where else.
I suspect that Pangasinan is amused by this storm in a chalice because, as far as they are concerned, the First Mass was celebrated in that province in 1324, by a Franciscan missionary, Odoric of Perdenone, Italy, now called Blessed Odoric. There is a marker in front of the church in Bolinao (if the NHCP has not purloined it). As far as the Pangasinenses are concerned, the First Mass was celebrated in Luzon, not in the Visayas nor in northern Mindanao.