Newsletter of the District of Asia

 March 1997

God Returns to the Philippine Schools

A victory won over militant irreligion

Rt. Rev. Edward F. Casey

This article written in an issue of The Priest, in 1955 shows the great power of organised prayer.

In 1922 there were nine priests in the United States for every one in the Philippines, proportioned to the Catholic population of the two countries.  Five years later the ratio had become twelve to one.  That growing disproportion seemed to portend a tragic decay of the Faith in the only Christian nation of Asia.

When the writer of this article learned these facts he was principal of St. Thomas Military Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota, and pastor of the Parish of St. Therese in the same city.  A Mill Hill Missionary who had lived in the Philippines for sixteen years, was my guest at the academy in 1922 and the two of us frequently talked over the religious situation in that American colony of the Oriental tropics.  Sometimes we sought to weigh America’s responsibility for that situation.  The United States Government had paid $20,000,000 to Spain for the Philippines at the beginning of the century.  Soon thereafter our government sent back to their native land about  1,000 Spanish-born priests; about the same time all public funds were withdrawn from the schools wherein Religion was taught.  On the other hand the American Armed Forces, with businesslike energy and scientific skill, constructed splendid roads throughout the tropical archipelago, drained many of its pestilential swamps, and organized health bureaus in cities and town, thus reducing the frequency of epidemics or eliminating them entirely.  It was by these visible, palpable, outstanding benefits that America won the admiration, the gratitude, the loyalty of the Filipinos.

The question in the minds of the two priests - the one an English missionary, the other an American teacher - was this: have these brilliant achievements of the American Government in the Philippines tended to lure the simple Malay inhabitants away from the Catholic Faith, by which their ancestors through four centuries had been nurtured in a civilization which was peculiarly their own?  The Spanish explorers who followed Magellan to the great group of more than 7,000 islands in the Western Pacific, found there a multitude of warlike tribes where piracy and fretting, pillage and plunder where common means of livelihood; while head-hunting and human sacrifice were mingled with their religious rites.

One strong and enterprising tribe, the Moros, possessed the elements of a civilization which placed them a hundred years ahead of all the other Filipinos.  The chief strongholds of the Moros were on the great island Mindanao in the South, but they were known and feared in other widely separated regions; for they were bold adventurers and were always well equipped for expeditions whether for trade or for war.  In religion, however, they were Mohammedans; they refused therefore, to accept the Catholicity which the Spanish friars propagated with fervent zeal.  The Catholic missionaries found all of the other groups of Filipinos more simple and primitive than were the powerful and proud Moros.  And all of the other tribes, except a few small groups of mountaineers, received the Christian Religion with the simplicity of children and readily assimilated its purifying and ennobling influence.

The results of these opposite attitudes toward Christianity have been very remarkable, and very instructive.  For while the vast majority of the Filipinos, belonging to more than fifty tribes mutually hostile in their various forms of paganism, embraced the Catholic Faith and were molded by its ennobling and pacifying principles into peaceful and friendly tribes, the Moros tenaciously clung to their Mohammedanism throughout the four intervening centuries.  They are still followers of “The Prophet.”  But for the last hundred years they have been classified, socially, officially, and legally as one of the “Uncivilized Tribes.”  Moreover, wherever the Moros predominate, garrisons of armed troops have to be stationed among them to prevent or suppress the murderous outbreaks against one another as well as against visiting strangers.  Throughout the Philippines the two terms “non-civilized tribes” and “non-Christian tribes” are used interchangeably.  The Moros have not noticeably degenerated; their religious beliefs have deprived them of the civilization which is one of the inevitable by-products of the Catholic Religion whenever and wherever it has been free to grow.

More Priests Needed

Among pristine peoples living close to nature, unaccustomed to the many conveniences and embellishments of modern life - whether civilized or scientifically savage - the garish glitter of material splendors might very easily intoxicate and bedazzle the populace and its leaders.  Would the simple Malay Catholics of the Philippines be thus betrayed into the worship of materialistic idols by the vigorous, magnificent accomplishments of the American regime, which so strongly emphasizes the temporal welfare of the society that the surpassing value of the human soul is frequently forgotten?  The only possible escape of the Filipinos from such a fate would be a great increase in the numbers of zealous priests and teaching religious.  Pondering over such thoughts, the present writer still hesitated for five years to abandon his labors in the Archdiocese of St. Paul.  And yet there were several priests I knew of, capable men, who were perfectly willing to undertake the work that I was then doing.  But I knew of none who was interested in going to the Philippines; none to whom had come such opportunities to learn the conditions confronting the Church in those Islands, as had come to me.  Did this knowledge constitute a providential command to go to the Islands in such desperate need of more priests?  No, not a command.  But was it an invitation?  Perhaps it was.  Yet I was enjoying the work I was doing.  But the longer this debate went on in my mind the more insistent became that calm admonition of the Good Shepherd: “And the hireling flieth because he is a hireling and had no care for the sheep.”

Early in May, 1927, I applied to Archbishop Dowling for a transfer to the Philippine Missions.  I spent a year at Fordham University and another year in Australia in preparation for my work in the Orient.  The Apostolic Delegate to the Philippines, Archbishop William Piani, D.D., assigned me to the Diocese of Lipa, sixty miles south from Manila.  There His Excellency, the Most Rev. Alfredo Versoza, D.D., commissioned me to organize the Catechetical Instruction in the public schools which were within the limits of the Diocese.  In accordance with a law enacted about 1915, any priest or other minister of religion might, either in person or by his authorized representative, instruct , for a maximum of three half-hour periods per week, those students whose parents requested such religious instruction. The Principal of each school appointed, subject to the approval of the Division Superintendent, the classroom and the times for such instruction.

Archbishop Michael J. O’ Doherty, D.D., of Manila, Metropolitan of the Ecclesiastical Province of the Philippines, informed me in our first conversation, that less than four percent of the Catholic students enrolled in the public schools of the Philippines, were attending the authorized classes in Religion.  On that occasion His Excellency made another observation tending to prepare me for difficulties. “The Bishops of these Islands,” he said, “are going to be watching your work in Lipa with very attentive interest.  You have so many advantages: in the first place you are an American, and that alone gives you great prestige in the Philippines, with all classes of people; then you have taught for years over there, in both public and private schools; if you fail we might as well throw up our hands in defeat.”

Five years later I wrote to the Archbishop acknowledging that I failed miserably, so far as numbers attending the classes in Religion were concerned; in fact those numbers had dwindled from year to year.  But I was not yet ready to throw up my hands in defeat.  For I had discovered a conspiracy among the highest school officials themselves, to strangle all religious instruction in public schools throughout the Philippines, notwithstanding the law that authorized such instruction.  My attempts to expose that conspiracy and to break it might fail - might, indeed, send me to jail or to prison: for those law-breakers were powerful, adroit, and unscrupulous.  Long experience in the inner circles of the Government had given them an influence far greater and more elusive than their legal authority; so it was impossible for me to even guess what their line of defense might be, whether legal or extra-legal.

But a million innocent children were being robbed of their Faith every year without realizing it.  Their parents, even who surmised the evil, were helpless against anything that the great Bureau of Public Instruction might do.  If my attack on any member of that Bureau as a law-breaker should fail, should send me to prison, what then?  In prison I would not be tormented by that divine admonition,  “The hireling flieth because he is a hireling.”  No matter what the struggle might bring to me, I was determined to test the teeth of those wolves.

Among those who deplored the sinister significance of the public school absentees from the classes in Religion, none was more deeply concerned than our Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Piani.  Always hopeful, always encouraging, His Excellency was convinced that the situation called for a crusade of organized prayer for the schools.  In November of 1935 the Delegate handed me a leaflet on which I read the following:

Prayer for the Schools of the Philippines

O God, whose grace “Law-givers decree just things,” give to the law-makers of Thy favored nation, the Philippine Islands, wisdom and courage to provide a system of schools truly religious, that Thy children may learn to know, to love and to serve Thee.  Through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

Under the ardent but gentle direction of the Apostolic Delegate, several of the Ordinaries were soon circulating 30,000 copies of the prayer among their flocks.  The prayer was printed in both English and the chief dialect of the nation, Tagalog.  All were urged to say the prayer daily to teach it to their children.  Archbishop Piani approved of the fight we were waging for the cause, but he was anxious that our fighting arms be well supported by a multitude at prayer.

The regular circulation of the Delegate’s leaflet and its daily use among the people, began in January of 1936.  Two months later I was a guest at St. Rita’s Hall in Manila, the archdiocesan hospice under the direction of the Rev. Russell Hughes, Maryknoll Missionary.  With him and me at the breakfast table was the veteran Jesuit missionary, Rev. Joseph Mulry, S.J. both men were from New York, and their chief charge at that time was the editing and publishing of The Philippines Commonweal, the new Catholic weekly sponsored by the Hierarchy of the Philippines.

Their main topic that morning was the difficulty they had, up to the present, experienced in finding any definite action by which the law for religious instruction had been clearly violated by the man who was chiefly responsible for smothering the classes in Religion.  I listened to these zealous priests deploring this difficulty which had, so far, prevented any legal action against the most guilty official.

After some time I remarked that I knew there was real danger in attacking this official; but the attack must be made if the Catholic Faith of the growing generation was to be preserved.  Then I added: “You men deplore the difficulty of finding any clear violations of the law by this official, because of his adroit skill in covering his attacks.  But for the last seven years I have kept a journal of my catechetical experiences in the public schools wherein I have taught in person, as well as many incidents told to me by my catechists in other schools.  Now many of these records show that his man has repeatedly broken the law by protecting and promoting his subordinates whose offenses were punishable by dismissal from all connection with the school-system of the Philippines.  There are plenty of witnesses to substantiate every statement in that journal.  And I can assure you there is plenty of dynamite in that notebook.  If you men so decide, I will gladly make use of your weekly columns to expose this enemy.”

Bolo For Hire

Both men were silent for a long minute.  They knew that we were facing a momentous decision; a decision that might well involve a life-and-death struggle.  The stronger our case might prove to be before the law, the more likely those enemies we had to deal with would make use of other weapons.  The gangsters in the Philippines seldom use guns; the bolos are just as deadly and make less noise.  Moreover, the bolos on account of their wide variety of uses on farms and in forests, in swamps and on mountains form part of the equipment of almost every family.  Those knives of hardened steel with the keen razor-like edge may be used to trim the velvet lawn, or harvest the ripening banana, or clear the path of the forest-ranger.  But I have given the last rites to dying men - victims of sudden quarrels - and the impulsive thrust of the bolo.  I was assured by one man, who still called himself a Catholic, but the product of a public school and one who had given up the practice of his Faith - that he would kill a man for fifty dollars.

So from more than one angle, the situation confronting the three missionary priests in St. Rita’s hall that morning was very serious.  But the most serious case generally found Father Mulry ready to lighten things up by a bit of humor.  So it was now.  After a silent pause, he threw his head back, gazed at the ceiling and mused:  “Let us see - this is March seventeenth - St. Patrick’s Day is a pretty good day to start the fight.”  Then when he found us smiling he continued, affably but more seriously as he looked at me,  “Suppose you write out what you have in mind; then we’ll see if we can use your stuff.”

“Good,” I said.  “Have you a typewriter available?”

“Yes,” said Father Hughes, “several of them; come with me to the commercial room.”

I spent the entire day writing my “Letter to the Editor.”  It appeared on the Editorial Page of The Philippines Commonweal of March 19.  So we placed our crusade under the patronage of St. Joseph and St. Patrick.  Those wise patrons of ours may have had something to do with the line of defense taken up by the accused school-men.  Notwithstanding their adroit skill in dealing with all former complaints, they seemed to have lost all their cunning in their attempts to refute our accusations.  Each time they broke silence they said exactly what we wanted them to say.  Their defense only added fuel to our furnace.  In the end silence became their only safeguard.  And in the meantime the “Prayer for the Schools of the Philippines” was being circulated and used daily in ever-widening circles of congregations, schools, and families.  In the United States as well as in the Philippines the prayer was taken up.  One priest in America spread more than 200,000 copies.  So, for those who know something of the power of prayer the results of this battle for souls in the schools of the Philippines, have not been very surprising, but very gratifying, even though the fighting is not yet finished.  It was on January 18, 1937 - just ten months after the opening attack on the anti-religious conspiracy - that the ringleader fled from the Philippines a thoroughly discredited fugitive.

A Change in Atmosphere

How that one event changed the atmosphere of the public schools throughout the Islands!  The 30,000 teachers - 98 % of them Catholic - were no longer slaves to fear of demotion or dismissal for some inadvertent word or act that might be reported as “Catholic propaganda.”  They were no longer obliged to maintain a pose of frigid, stony indifference toward the pupils assembling for the Catechetical Classes in their school-rooms, and a similar pose toward the volunteer instructors arriving for the same classes.  On Saturdays and Sundays those teachers in public schools, now freed from the sinister presence of their bigoted dictator, could teach catechism or preside over the meeting of a parish society if their pastor invited them to do so.  And the Catholic children in school no longer discouraged by the chilly frowns and vacant stares of their teachers when the “Religious Class” was announced, soon began flocking into that class in numbers that multiplied with the passing weeks.  To cite just one example: in the town of San Jose, Batangas, where one of my most zealous catechists was able by force of heroic exertions to muster a class of twenty pupils in the public school during 1936, more than 300 children were taking religious instructions a few days later.

But even though the “four percent classes” of the 1920’s and 1930’s may have grown to forty percent classes by 1940, that was only the first phase of the struggle.  Fully half of the children in the public schools remained uninstructed.  So the “Prayer for the Schools of the Philippines” continued to be propagated in the Philippines and in America.  Independence for the Philippines was inaugurated in 1946, closely following the four years of devastating war.  The breath of liberty seemed to instill a new life into the native sons of the young Republic.  At home, Ramon Magsaysay, a brilliant army officer during the war, turned his talents and his courage to the stern suppression of the anarchy instigated by Communists among the Hukbalahap’s = Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon; and then won the “Huks” themselves by statesmanlike justice and fair dealing.

Enter Magsaysay

The overwhelming victory of President Magsaysay in November 1953 constitutes a new epoch in the struggle for Religious Instruction in the public schools of the Philippines; for when Ramon Magsaysay became a candidate for the presidential office, his leading pledge was really a revolutionary move in political circles.  For the first time a candidate seeking the office of Chief Executive in the Islands promised that, if elected, he would make it his first duty to see that every child attending a public school in the Philippines would have adequate opportunity to receive Religious Instruction. *

That campaign pledge of the courageous and straightforward Secretary of Public Defense intensified the fervor and strengthened the confidence of the millions who for eighteen years had been praying for the law-makers of the Philippines and for the system of schools they would provide in that Catholic country.  The overwhelming victory by which Ramon Magsaysay was swept into office was a tribute, indeed, to his unblemished public record as well as to the generous and wise support of his experienced campaign manager, the veteran General Romulo.  But in that flood tide of three million votes, the nation breathed a benediction of thanksgiving on the man who had assured them that their schools, after an interval of fifty years, would once more safeguard the Religious Faith of the rising generation and provide opportunities for the instruction of the children by the catechists under the direction of their pastors.

Such an administration constitutes a magnificent challenge to the Bishops of the Philippines.  The State throws open the doors of its schools in welcome to the instructors of religious doctrine.  The Bishops must supply those instructors in sufficient numbers to meet this God-given opportunity.  The actual picture in those beautiful Islands seems to be taking shape in exact word with the petitions of the Prayer which the representative of the Pope began to propagate eighteen years ago.

N.B.  It is commonly alleged that the death of Magsaysay by a plane crash was really a “murder-plot.”  If it was, was it because of this pledge for religious instruction?  In any case, he was the president well-loved by the people and Philippine history speaks a little of him, if it is not silent on him.  It is too bad that his name is ignored in history.  We might have had a president who was Catholic not only by name but also in principles.  (editor)

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