Newsletter of the District of Asia

 Jan - Mar 2002

Heart-Breaking Struggle for
The Soul Of A Nation

A testimony, written fifty years ago, by Rev. Fr. L.A. O'Leary C.SS.R.


This is the story of a tragedy - the tragedy of a nation's lost soul. As a result of the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded the Philippine Islands to the United States. When the Spaniards departed, all the Spanish missionaries returned to their homeland and into the vacuum thus created poured hundreds of Protestant missionaries, differing inevitably in belief and practice but firmly united in one aim - to destroy the Catholic Faith in the Islands.


March 25, 1952
Six thousand miles northwest of New Zealand--a mere few hundred miles off the northern coast of Australia--the soul of a great Catholic nation is today in the balance. The Philippines is the only Christian nation of the Orient. In the Providence of God it has happened that the Philippines have received the priceless gift of Faith, while so many sister nations still sit in the darkness all around. To the north is the Empire of Japan with sixty million pagans, to the west is the great continent of China with its four hundred million, to the south is Indonesia with its thirty million Mohammedans. In the center of this circle of paganism lies the Philippines. Of its twenty million of population, seventeen millions are baptized Catholics. From here we might expect the light of Faith to spread out over the East; on the contrary, there is today a real danger that the Philippines, as a nation, may yet be lost to the Church.


Truly Catholic under Spain

Years ago, as a seminarian in the Redemptorist of Studies, Sydney, I along with other students, Australians and New Zealanders, listened spellbound as returning missionaries spoke to us of the glory and the tragedy that was the Philippines story, surely one of the most poignant in the whole long history of the Church.

They told us of great massive churches and cathedrals gradually falling into decay, of deserted monasteries and convents; of seven hundred parishes left almost overnight without a priest; of Catholic people left abandoned in their thousands and tens of thousands, with no priest to baptize their children, to celebrate Mass, to hear their confession, to administer the last Sacraments to the dying.

The Philippines had been under Spain for four hundred years. Spanish missionaries converted the people from paganism and made practically all the islands of the Archipelago solidly Catholic. Then came the Spanish-American War in 1898. Admiral Dewey destroyed the Spanish Grand Fleet in Manila Bay. The United States took over the Philippines. The Spaniards had to depart; with them went a thousand Spanish missionaries. The people were left without the clergy. Professor Zaide, in his History of the Philippines, says that one of principal reasons why the United States determined to annex the Islands instead of giving them their independence was the pressure brought to bear on President McKinley by the Protestants groups in America.

On November 21, 1899, McKinley explained to a group of Protestant ministers about to leave for the Philippines, why he decided to retain the Islands: "Before you go I should like to say a word about the Philippine business. The truth is I did not want the Philippines. I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance. And it came to me, there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them."

Apparently the President of the United States was a little weak in history. He was going to civilize a country that had been civilized and cultured for centuries, he was going to Christianize a people that had been Catholic for four hundred years, he was going to educate a people who had their own University of San Ignacio in 1621, and the world famous University of Santo Tomas in 1611; one hundred years before the first University was founded in the United States. The ministers saw their chance to deal a blow at the Catholic Church and they were not slow to take it.

Southern Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians swarmed over the Island like locusts. One boat alone brought four hundred non-Catholic ministers. Immediately they set about attacking and undermining the Faith of a defenseless people. They took over control of nearly all the schools of the Islands. It was surely a spectacle to make the angels weep-the whole Catholic childhood of a Catholic nation in the grip of heretical ministers. And what amazing zeal these Protestants showed! In less than two years, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, United Brethren, Seventh Day Adventists, the American Bible Society, and the Y.MC.A., formed themselves into the Evangelical Union of Protestants, and divided the Islands into special spheres of influence, each sphere to be under the control of one sect without opposition from the others.

Not until eighteen months after this Evangelical Union had been formed, did the first Catholic priest arrive from the United States. The Church had lost the youth of the Nation. Though many American Government officials were outstanding men, many others were but bitterly anti-Catholic. To hope for advancement a Filipino had to sacrifice his Faith. The most brilliant students were sent to Protestant colleges or universities in America, and then were sent back to continue the work of proselytizing amongst their own countrymen.


Danger becomes known

If America could or would have sent some 800 priests to replace the Spanish priests who had left all would have been well. Even if 50 had come they could have checked the growing danger. Yet it is pathetic to count the number of American priests in the Philippines during those first twenty years. By 1912, eleven years after America had complete control of the Islands, there were only eight American priests. In 1919 there were four. In 1920 there were two!

Gradually the imminent danger of the Philippines being lost to the Faith became known. Religious Orders in Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy and England sent missionaries. From Ireland, Australia and New Zealand came the Redemptorists. They learned the dialects of these people, and then went up and down through the Islands preaching Missions, answering objections of the proselytizers, rallying the people to the old Faith once more.

This was the story of the Philippines as we heard it from the men returning. They told us how the people welcomed their coming, how they had all but given up hope of seeing a priest again, how they came in their thousands to go to confession, to hear Holy Mass, to receive Our Lord into their hearts again after twenty long years of forced separation from Him.

As seminarians, when we heard these thing, heard them from men who had worn themselves out in this grim battle for the soul of a nation, strange longings stirred in our hearts; the tragedy of the Philippines filled our minds; we waited impatiently for the day of ordination, for the day when we might get the word, "Go to the Philippines."

Well, some of us got it. Only after many years did I finally heard the order "Go to the Philippines." And at last, on April 22, 1950, I landed in Manila Bay.


Pressure can never relax

Eighteen months have gone by since then. Eighteen months crammed with work. The pressure never relaxes and can never relax, for the battle for the soul of the Philippines is still going on. This is true today as it has been every single day since those 1,000 Spanish priests left these island shores back in 1898. The issue is not yet decided. In some ways the picture is more hopeful now than it was in the past. In spite of fanatical zeal and the lavish outpouring of unlimited money, Protestantism has failed to make any real impression on the Filipino people. Since the country got its independence from the United States on July 4, 1946, anti-Catholic influence has waned and there has been a revival of Faith.

But in spite of these encouraging signs, the overall picture is still dark. The Philippines may yet be lost. I have heard one experienced missioner declare that in fifty years, there will be just a small group of practical Catholics, but that the nation in general will lose its Catholic Faith, and will sink back into the dark abyss of paganism. If this does happen it will not be the fault of the Filipino people. But will be due to the tragedy that still haunts these Islands - no priests.

Thirty thousand more priests are needed here today to bring the ration of priests to people up to what that ratio is in Australia and New Zealand. This need is so colossal that it is hard for the mind to grasp it. Take the whole population of New Zealand, Catholic and Protestant, Maori and Pakeha, bring in another 200,000 immigrants and add them to that total and you have the number of Catholics within twenty miles of me here at the present moment. Yet for these 2,000,000 Catholics there are less than 50 priests to say Mass on Sundays.

Two parishes alone, Tondo and Sampoloc, have more Catholics than the total Catholic population of New Zealand. Or, to complete the comparison in an Australian setting, these two parishes, Tondo and Sampaloc, have more Catholics than the total Catholic population of Queensland. Yet these two parishes have in all only six priests.

In New Zealand and Queensland there are nearly a thousand priests. Imagine, if suddenly, tomorrow morning, say, these thousand priests of New Zealand and Queensland were exiled leaving only six priests in each country. Let this state of things go on for fifty years: fifty years without Mass or the Sacraments beyond what these six priests could manage: and fifty years moreover of being subjected, day after day, to an insidious propaganda, directed specifically against you by hundreds of ministers who with unlimited financial backing built and staffed schools for your children, erected magnificent churches and hospitals, and promised you worldly success and promotion, if only you would forget your old Faith, and become renegades to it. Let that state of affairs go on, I say, for half a century in New Zealand and Australia. and whose faith would survive the ordeal?

And yet, that is the story of the Philippines for the past fifty years!


Instinct Deeply Catholic

Is it any wonder that hundreds of thousands of Filipino Catholics, indeed millions of them, have never received any Sacrament but Baptism, have never been instructed in their Faith, and have never heard Holy Mass. And the heart-breaking thing is that these people are so responsive. Whenever a new priest arrives and another Sunday Mass is possible, that Mass is crowded out.

There is no escaping the fact that the instinct of this nation is deeply Catholic. The very names of the streets read like a Litany of Saints; nearly every drug store has a religious title, Farmacia de Virgen de Perpetuo Socorro, Farmacia Redentorista, Farmacia de San Antonio; most private automobiles carry on the windshield a sticker of the Sacred Heart or of Our Lady of Perpetual Succor; nearly every taxi has a large holy picture just above the driver's head: the public buses have miniature shrines with lights burning before the tiny statues; in the month of May it is almost impossible to drive through the city streets because of the flores de Mayo processions in honor of Our Blessed Lady, long lines of girls in flowing white frocks, jeweled coronets on their heads, the beads in their hands as they sing the Rosary in Spanish.

All this looks very wonderful. And it is very wonderful Catholic country with all taking the practice of the Faith as a part of their ordinary lives, not a thing to be discreetly hidden away behind church doors. Even still, as I pass through the city, and see tens of thousands swarming in every street, I find a strange exaltation and pride in the thought, "Every one of these persons is a Catholic, is a member of the household of the Faith." But quick upon the heels of this exaltation and pride there comes an indefinable feeling of sadness, for behind all these external signs of Faith, the dark shadow of tragedy ever looms.

Ask the bus driver, who religiously keeps the lights burning before the little shrine in his bus, "How many Gods are there?" and he might tell you anything from three to a dozen. He just does not know. He has been baptized a Catholic, he calls himself a Catholic, beyond that he and millions of his fellow Filipino countrymen know nothing of their Faith. Ask the wealthy business man, who has the images of the Sacred Heart and those of the Blessed Virgin prominently displayed on the windshield of his automobile, when he was last at confession; the answer will probably be, "Fifteen or twenty years ago."

What is at the back of all this ignorance of the Faith among people who are so proud of being Catholic? Again the answer is, No priests. It is true that priests have come from all over the world to join in the struggle for the saving of the Faith in the Philippines. On the feast of St. Alphonsus this year, at the dinner we gave for the Archbishop and clergy, there were priests from fifteen different nations; storm-troopers thrown in a desperate effort to hold the line. But then they come in such pitifully small numbers; now a single priest, now a little group of two or three; not enough to replace the men whom death takes out of the line each year.

Meanwhile into this Catholic nation, the sects are still today pouring five men to our one. They have no hope of making the Filipinos Protestants, but they are succeeding only too well in turning some of them against the Faith and making them completely indifferent and cynical towards all religion. Ninety per cent of sectarian preaching is aimed simply at destroying the Catholic Faith of the listeners. A favorite argument is the appeal to national feeling. "Christ said, 'Love one another as I have loved you.' But Catholic Spain did not love you; it conquered you and held you in subjection. Therefore the Catholic Church is not the true Church of Christ. But Protestant America freed you from the tyranny of Spain; and loved you and gave you independence. Therefore Protestantism is the only true religion of Christ."


Protestant Propaganda

One sect has its own radio station. It distributes wireless sets free among the poor, but each set is sealed to one wave-length; only the Protestant station can be tuned in. The result, these homes are subjected to a daily battering of Protestant propaganda. Filipinos have an instinctive love for the Blessed Virgin. Everywhere the children ask you for pictures and medals of her. Some of the ministers have cashed in on this and lure the Catholic children to their Bible classes by giving them pictures of Our Blessed Lady. Once they have them, all their love for the Mother of God is soon crushed out of their hearts. The Protestant Y.M.C.A. has the Rosary said every night in their Hostels for Girls in an attempt to get Catholic girls under their influence. Even the unfortunate lepers are not spared. There is one sanatorium where they are refused admittance or treatment unless they first sign a paper renouncing their Catholic Faith.

All this is made possible simply because of lack of priests. Give the Filipino people the opportunity of practicing their Catholic Faith and there is no nation in the world that can match them for fervor and loyalty. But millions never come in contact with a priest during the years in which they are growing up, simply because there are no priests for them to come in contact with. When thirty thousand priests are urgently needed here today, what can the mere handful of us here at present do? Just keep on working, whilst hoping and praying more priests will come to back us up in this desperate fight for the soul of a Catholic nation.

We, Redemptorists, act as a sort of flying-column; going into a district for a week or two, baptizing young and old, fixing up marriages, hearing confessions, saying Mass, answering the objections of the proselytizers, giving the people a new pride in their Faith. These missions, repeated every year, do tremendous good. Not only do those who went to the Sacraments on a former mission return again, but at each mission there are hundreds of adults who make their first confession and first Holy Communion. This year in Santa Cruz, Maranduque, four hundred adults made their first confession and one hundred and fifteen adults were baptized. At Cabu, Cabanatuan, there were five hundred adult first confessions. In Tacloban, Leyte, two thousand one hundred marriages were rectified during the mission. At Redemptorist Missions in the last twenty years over one hundred thousand marriages have been rectified, and those people and their children brought back to the practice of their Faith.


Only the Fringe

But once again, this is only touching the fringe of the mission work that is possible. The Australian and New Zealand Redemptorists are the only priests engaged in this work, and there are only fifteen of us. We have constantly to be refusing the requests of Bishops and priests to give missions in their districts, and always the reason is, "We have not the men available."

Though secondary to the missions in the native dialect, retreats in English for the universities and colleges are another major work. In Manila alone there are ten large universities, with a student enrolment of nearly one hundred and fifty thousand. At least one hundred and thirty thousand of these are Catholic students. The Catholic University of Santo Tomas, conducted by the Dominican Fathers, has twenty-four thousand students; the Far Eastern University has thirty-five thousand. Apart from Santo Tomas the majority of Varsity students have never made their first confession or first Holy Communion, yet these in the future are to be the intellectual leaders of a Catholic nation. The Redemptorists conduct nearly all these retreats, and it is only during them that the students get an opportunity of going to the Sacraments in any number. For the confessions, of course, every possible priest has to be called in. I walked out to give the first lecture of a varsity retreat here, and when I turned around to face the microphone, I almost fled in panic. There were a mere three thousand girls in their white varsity uniforms and black Spanish veils sitting in the vast chapel. And this, mind you, was just the girls' section of one single subject- Pharmacy .

In the grade schools of the city of Manila alone, there are over half a million Catholic pupils. In spite of virulent opposition from the ministers and the Masons, which is still continuing, the law allows Catechism to be taught in the schools. This is done by Catechetical Guilds and the Legion of Mary. In our part of the city, two Redemptorist Fathers direct the instruction of twenty-four thousand children in public schools. In the whole Philippine Islands there are five million children on the school rolls according to latest official figures.

Returning home from missions and retreats means not a few days' rest, but the most intensive mission work of all in our Redemptorist Church, four miles out of the city, at the end of the famous Dewey Boulevard. Here a perpetual mission goes on. I suppose in New Zealand or Australia, one of our larger churches, say a Cathedral, might have seven or eight thousand people attending it each week. To the Redemptorist Church in Manila there is a constant stream of one hundred thousand people every week. I do not mean that the number live in the district round the church, but one hundred thousand actually attend the church every week. Confessions go on every day of the week from six in the morning till late at night. The Holy Communions average four thousand a week throughout the year. They would be twenty thousand a week if only we had more priests to hear the confessions.


Starving for the Sacraments

You see the people actually hungering for the Sacraments and there are not enough priests to administer them. Here one poignantly realizes the utter sadness of that text of Sacred Scripture: "The children have cried for bread and there was none to break it to them." After hours in the confessional it is heartbreaking to look out and see the long lines of people queued up at the other empty confessionals, patiently waiting for another priest to come, but waiting, as you know, in vain. When we have to leave the confessional, we try not to look at the faces of the people left unheard, there is too much sadness and disappointment there. At times, some man or woman will hold us by the sleeve and plead: "Please hear me, Father. This is the first chance I have had in twenty years, and I have been waiting here two hours already." It is then you really do put feeling in the silent prayer: "Dear God, send us more priests." Today, sixty out of every one hundred Catholics in the Philippines who die, go into eternity without the Sacraments; not because they are indifferent to these divine channels of Grace, but simply because there is no priest to be called in answer to their piteous request "Get me a priest, I am dying."

Well, this is the Philippine story; the story of a most lovable and loyal people; of seventeen millions of your fellow Catholics a few hundred miles from your shores.

Please pray for the Philippines; today your prayers can work miracles; to-morrow they may be too late. Pray above all: "God send them priests in time."

Hearken to the pleading voice of the world's Redeemer "Pray ye, therefore, the Lord of the harvest, that He send forth labourers into His harvest."

You have read this moving story with interest. Now hand on this article to others, that they too might read, and as you have done - Pray for the Philippines. O Lord, send laborers into the Harvest!

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