Newsletter of the District of Asia

 Jan - Mar 2002

The Religious Situation in the Philippines in 1926

M. J. O’Doherty, Archbishop of Manila
(The American Ecclesiastical Review, February 1926, pp.129-138.)


Numerous articles in the secular press of late have made it appear that we of the Commonwealth of the United States are deeply interested in the perpetual retention of the Philippine Islands as a national possession.  The valuable land of Mindanao as a future rubber-producing territory naturally appeals to the moneyed interests of our financial representatives.  On the other hand the militaristic element in this country cannot well lose sight of the fact that the Philippine Islands offer the best strategic point of defense for the army and navy in the whole East.

To members of the Catholic Church in America these considerations are on the whole of secondary interest. What concerns them more directly is the religious aspect of our relations to the Filipinos.  Formerly, as is recognized on all sides, the main body of the inhabitants of the islands professed the Catholic faith; that is, the people recognized the authority of the Catholic Church and regulated their public and private conduct accordingly.  At present this state of things is undergoing a change, the effects of which are already apparent but by no means promising for the ultimate benefit of the inhabitants of the islands.  Naturally the “why” of this change is agitating the Catholic missionary and those who take a leading interest in the preservation of the old faith in the islands to which the United States hold out protection of national fellowship.  We propose to answer the question as succinctly as our space permits.

Thirty years ago, the Catholic Church in the Philippines was in as flourishing a condition as any other country of the world.  In a material way the Church was thoroughly established with a hierarchy, numerous clergy, and a proportionate number of finely built churches.  Many of these churches still stand to testify to their former grandeur as imposing types of Spanish mission architecture.  As one time they were well equipped with altars and sanctuary furniture, rich in the possession of splendid vestments and decorations.  Today we look in vain for the splendor of former days.

Socially also, the Catholic Church was unquestionably the dominating influence of the land.  Since Church and State were in close alliance, the people who had ambition to rise to any social or political position had to be good, practicing Catholics.  In many cases the Spanish friars were the civil administrators as well as the religious teachers of the people.  Education was in all parts of the archipelago in the hands of clerics.  Those who neglected the practice of their religion were looked upon with suspicion by the populace at large.  As a rule, those who sought employment would confer with the priest, as being the most influential personage to intercede in their behalf.

The high moral status of the Filipinos, their lofty ideals, their peace, happiness and prosperity, standing out in marked contrast with other Oriental nations, were beyond doubt due to the religious of Spain, who for three centuries labored to raise the natives from a state of paganism and uncivilization to a position of honor among the peoples of the world. In secular literature the Philippines are styled, “The Pearl of the Orient”, a name most appropriate on account of their natural beauty and the wealth of the land.  But even more fitting is the appellation from an ecclesiastical viewpoint.  Let us compare the Filipinos with the neighboring nations.  In China there are over 400,000,000 souls, of whom only 2,000,000 are Catholics.  Of the 300,000,000 inhabitants of India hardly more than 2,000,000 Catholics are to be found.  Japan has a population of about 60,000,000 of whom not more than 50,000 are members of the Church.        But in the Philippines, out of a population of 11,000,000, between nine and ten million are Catholics.  It may be a surprise to many readers to learn that the Philippines are the sixth largest Catholic country of the world.  Italy ranks first in the number of its Catholic population; then follows Germany; the United States is third; Poland fourth; then comes Spain, followed by the Philippines. This stronghold of the Church is due, under God’s grace, to the zeal of the priests from Spain.

A great and glorious work, indeed, this conversion of a whole nation to Christ!  Praise and admiration fall short when we begin to estimate the task of the Spanish missionaries.  What mistakes in policy they did make are traceable rather to their zeal and generosity than to any less noble motive.  A careful analysis of after events will lead one to the conclusion that if the Spanish friars made a mistake in their policy of governing the Filipinos, it was solely in this that they failed to realize that a day might come when Spanish sovereignty in the Islands would cease.  Hence they made no plans for an emergency such as happened in 1898.  They neglected the Catholic principle that no Church can rest upon a substantial basis unless it is manned by a native clergy.  True, native priests had been ordained in the Philippines, but they were seldom, if ever, allowed to become pastors.  Their offices were rather those of helpers in the more ordinary duties of the parish.  To illustrate, the status of affairs in the Archdiocese of Manila may be cited.  Of the 350 parishes under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop, only twelve were actually in his control, so far as appointment of pastors was concerned.  Other pastors, although nominally appointed by the Archbishop, were really the choice of the Spanish friars.

Such being the case, it is by no means strange that the Filipino priests were wholly unprepared to cope with the situation when full responsibility for the government of parishes fell unexpectedly upon their shoulders.  Perpetual curates they had intended to be and nothing more.  Their previous training had fitted them for no more.  A certain native priest of Bulacan voiced his sentiments to the bishop some years after the new regime had gone into effect exclaiming:  “Your Lordship, we were never trained for this”. And his words were but too true.

The attitude of the Spanish clergy was but a reflex of the policy of the civil power.  Now, as is natural in every country, the aspiration for complete national development had been growing for years in the hearts of the Filipinos.  But such a complete national development is only to be hoped for in the atmosphere of autonomy; and so it was that many among the most educated Filipinos, considering that the time had arrived for freedom from the rule of Spain, began more and more to resent the Spanish paternalistic sway.  And since the Spanish friars were the strongest force, as it were, backing up the sovereign power, popular resentment of the governmental policy came to be focused upon them.

Meanwhile Masonry had stealthily crept into the country from the anti-clerical elements in Spain, and it was not long before little cliques of anti-clericals were putting their heads together and concocting revolutionary schemes against the mother country in the Philippines.  These ambitions were only fanned into a fame by the summary manner in which Filipino leaders were treated when detected.  But the people as a whole were too much attached to their religion and pastors to look for any violent means of overthrowing the regime that had lasted for generations, so that at first the anti-clerical and Masonic leaders could make but little headway with their plans.  The unfortunate mistreatment, however, of certain respected Filipino patriots at the hands of Spanish officials, and particularly the death sentence inflicted upon the foremost scholar and leader of the Filipinos, Dr. Jose Rizal, united the nation in a wave of indignation and brought affairs to a climax.

The revolution set in.  What were 10,000 Spaniards against 9,000,000 Filipinos?  After a very short time the authority of Spain were overthrown in all parts of the archipelago except in the capital, Manila, which, too, would most probably have succumbed to the rebels in time. Just at this time, however, Admiral Dewey sailed into Manila Bay, and after a futile resistance on the part of the Spanish fleet, he soon had accomplished the surrender of Manila.

The Philippines had but changed hands:  now the Americans were in control.  The Filipinos resisted the new power as soon as they recognized that their long-cherished freedom was not forthcoming from the Land of Liberty. America, however, was a proposition quite different from Spain to face: superior numbers, modern arms and tactics, and a fully equipped navy – these were hardly an easy opponent for a small nation whose chief asset in the struggle consisted in its determination to be free. The submission came after some stubborn resistance, and peace and quiet reigned.  But at first it was a sullen peace and quiet, which continued until an official declaration was announced by America, proclaiming her liberal policy and altruistic aims.  Then the forced submission transformed itself into a most enthusiastic cooperation, which has lasted down to the present time.

The first endeavor of the conquering nation, sincerely desirous of developing a subject people, is to search out leaders among that people, in order to learn the ideals, aspirations, and customs of the land.  Thus did the United States act. “Where are your leaders?”  What kind of government to you wish to found?” – these were the first queries of the American Commission.  Then came forth the Filipino leaders – those men in nearly all cases, who had been most active in the revolution, anti-clericals and Masons, with a few, very few Catholics. Such was the personnel of the early Filipino government officials, whose ideas in large measure shaped the future destiny of the young nation.  The United States had no special bigoted bias; she had only tried to comply as well as possible with the desires of the leaders, whom she judged to be representatives of the people. Now the first concern of the Filipino leaders was to see that all traces of the Spanish domination be removed at once and so the Spanish friars were called in from the provinces to Manila and then gradually dispersed to South America or to Mexico where their labors would be still acceptable.  What influence upon religion their departure must have caused can be easily imagined when one considers that in the two years following the American occupation, between 700 and 800 Spanish priests were forced to withdraw from the Philippines, leaving behind them in many cases parishes devoid of even a single priest.  It then devolved upon the native clergy, few and untrained as they were for such a task, to assume the administration of the parishes, and in many instances to rebuild or repair churches which had been left in a sorry condition by the ravages of the revolution.

Unfortunately, at this time, notwithstanding all the hostility to everything Spanish, the serious mistake was made of appointing a friar as ecclesiastical governor of one of the prominent dioceses of northern Luzon. Of course the appointment was immediately resented by the leaders, and especially by a certain ambitious young priest of Manila, named Aglipay, who was waiting for  just such an opening to further his own interests.  “This is the very thing we fought against!” he admonished the people.  “We are done with the Spanish Church.  Now, we will have a Filipino Church.”

A number of other priests, unhappily, were of the same mind as Aglipay, and these did not hesitate to follow him into schism.  Hoodwinking the multitudes into believing that everything would remain just the same, that they would still continue to be Catholics, only now Filipino Catholics, they succeeded in gathering about 2,000,000 souls into what they styled “The Filipino Independent Church”.  Aglipay consecrated himself bishop.  For a number of years he and his schism were most active and wrought untold harm; but as time went on the schism defeated itself.  For the priests whom Aglipay ordained  were conspicuous for neither learning nor virtue, and their actions were often the cause of grave scandal to the parishioners.  For this reason a great number of the sincere fold, whose eyes were thus opened to the truth, found their way back to their old faith.  At present there is no place in the Archdiocese of Manila where the schism is strong except in the province of Zambales, and there it is rather on account of a lack of Catholic priests than for any other reason that it continues to flourish.  Sometimes Mass is not celebrated in the towns of this section oftener than once or twice a year, with the result that some of the faithful attend the Aglipayan services, giving as their excuse, “Better any Mass than no Mass”.  They are wrong of course, but such frailty on the part of uninstructed people is quite easy to understand.

The wonder is that amidst all these trials - persecution, revolution, schism, scarcity of priests – the faith has survived. The one connecting-link between the new and the old order of things, the only torch that kept the light of faith from extinction, was the Filipino clergy, small in number, but sufficient to bolster up the ranks until new recruits had arrived from foreign countries.  But for these native priests the hierarchy of American Bishops, appointed to the sees left vacant by the Spanish Ordinaries, would have had a most discouraging outlook.  Yet so deep was the faith of the Filipino people that, in spite of a total absence of priests, the ancient religion might have survived.  For at the present day in certain localities where for years no pastor has cared for the flock, the good Catholics still continue to celebrate the fiesta of their town’s patron saint, and for this end will they sometimes travel for miles to procure a padre from the nearest parish.  They must have Mass and the Sacraments at least on the feast of their patron.  Love of religious processions, the honoring of the saints, devotion of the holy rosary and to the Passion of our Lord – these are still so deeply rooted in the very fibre of the Filipinos, that with good reason it may be doubted whether any amount of persecution or schism could ever for long succeed in eliminating them from their hearts.

Perhaps the greatest menace today to the faith is the public school, which has done more real harm than all other elements combined.  Immediately after the American occupation, a widespread system of public instruction was inaugurated.  From the United States came great numbers of teachers, most of whom were Protestants, including many ministers, missionary and Y.M.C.A. workers, eager to take advantage of this opportunity to proselytize in their unique and clever fashion.  Invariably they were kind to their pupils, lived in their homes, gave special attention to the bright, promising youths, whom they would send to the provincial high school, where again a kind reception awaited the students.  Later on, in the University at Manila, the Protestant friends of the teachers in the primary and high schools were instructed to keep an eye on these ambitious students.  Many a youth was thus attracted to Protestantism by this system of flattery and paternalism, and many of these later became ministers or University professors; and thus was created at insidious sphere of Protestant influence, far-reaching and powerful in its effects. Added to this was the influence of the Protestant dormitories and Bible societies which flourished in great numbers in Manila and in the capitals of the provinces.

It is not to be doubted that the potent sway of the English language greatly enhanced and facilitated all this propaganda.  For the English Language had become the universal medium for the exchange of ideas; it likewise proved to be a source of affectation for the youthful “learned”, who were taught to scorn their own dialects.  This result brings out another defect in the ancient Spanish policy, namely, the failure to teach the Filipinos the Spanish language as a medium of union among a people speaking sixty different dialects.  Although the Filipinos had craved for a knowledge of the Spanish tongue, this was denied them, not indeed for any unworthy motives, but rather for paternalistic reasons.  Since the Spanish literature of that period was extremely licentious, the friars were unwilling to thrust into the hands of this innocent nation a means of corruption such as their own language afforded.  Thus it came about that before the arrival of the Americans there existed no strong bonds of union among the Filipinos.  As the policy of their former rulers had been interpreted by the Filipinos as a means of subjugation, the American idea of creating a common language served by contrast to enhance the glory of the new educators.

The language question offered another serious drawback to the Catholic Church.  Because of their ignorance of the English language, native priests were looked down upon by the rising generation; because of this they were debarred from public functions, and of course were unable to gain admittance into the sanctum of the public school.  On the other hand, Protestant parsons were always welcome; they could instruct in the learned language; they also were acquainted with the requirements of the school courses, since they themselves were products of the same educational system.  All honor, then, to the minister in the lecture hall, at the public civil celebrations, and in the classroom!

Could this situation of affairs have been averted?  Yes – by the coming of American priests in number proportionate to that of the American Protestant ministers.  The propaganda of the latter was this: In America there is no such thing as the Catholic Church; so that if the Filipinos desire to imitate the policy of the United States in all that leads to success, they should adopt a religion like America’s, that is, the Protestant religion, the only one to be found there.  The Catholic religion is a relic of the Spanish dominion.  If the Philippines wish to become a free republic, their Church should be free and independent of Rome. Now to offset such a propaganda the only efficient agents would have been American priests, who could have gone into the classroom, mounted the public platform, lectured to the youth in dormitories, and, above all, could have taught them the old truths of the Catholic Faith in English.

But what was actually the case?  Religious Orders from almost all the countries of Europe answered the call for volunteers, entered the Islands, endeavored as best they could to master English, and take up the work of revivifying a dying faith.  And where were the priests from America?  In 1921, before the American Jesuits, twenty strong, entered Manila, there were but two American priests in the whole archipelago.  Others had been there before, it is true, but never more than a handful.  This sorry condition existed despite the fact that upon America, more than upon any other country, rested the responsibility of helping the Catholic Faith in the Philippines.  For when America had assumed control of the Islands, the former laborers of the vineyard had been forced to withdraw; and simultaneously Protestantism from our shores entered and played havoc with the faith of the successors of the Spanish clergy, and they could have successfully combated the tide of insidious propaganda.  The time will come – fifty or a hundred years hence – when America will realize her obligation and will go to the Philippines to regain a lost faith, that is, if she does not now awake to the realization of her duty and hasten to save a dying faith.

Trust in Divine Providence, however should make us look upward for encouragement.  The situation is not as bad as formerly.  The real crisis has been passed.  In increasing numbers the native clergy are entering the field.  Twelve years ago there were but thirty students in the Manila seminary, while today there are one hundred and twenty, not counting eighty others in the Jesuit Apostolic School. But it takes a long time to form a priest, and this year only one was ordained for the large archdiocese of Manila.  What is needed are many young, energetic American priests, who may get in contact with the students of the various high schools.  The ideal of the priesthood must be raised in the hearts of the Filipino youth; their zeal must be aroused; they must be filled with a laudable pride for the faith of their ancestors.  The presence of American priests is the best means to accomplish all this, as those priests can testify who have already labored there with great fruit for souls, some having brought back whole sections of the country to the true faith.  But more priests are required, many more, and they must take up the work now, before it is too late.  We can only trust that the same Divine Providence that has already guided the Church of the Philippines through so many vicissitudes will inspire many generous souls to enter upon this field of labor.


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