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Actors re-enact the first Mass on Limasawa island on 31 March 2021 Actors re-enact the first Mass on Limasawa island on 31 March 2021  (AFP or licensors)

500 years since first Mass in the Philippines

The Church marks the 500th anniversary of the first Mass in the Philippines, as Catholics gear up for a year-long jubilee of celebrations under the theme “Gifted to Give”.

By Devin Watkins

On Easter Sunday in 1521, Father Pedro de Valderrama celebrated the first Catholic Mass in what is now the Philippines, specifically on the island of Limasawa in Southern Leyte.

The date was 31 March, and the Spanish priest was part of an expedition to the so-called “East Indies” led by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan.

Father Valderrama set up an improvised altar, and officiated at the Mass, which was attended by his shipmates and a host of local tribal leaders and inhabitants. On that same Easter Sunday afternoon, Magellan ordered his men to plant a large wooden cross on the top of the hill overlooking the sea.

A few days later, the Magellan expedition moved on to the island of Cebu. On 14 April 1521, Fr. Valderrama baptized the local tribal leader and around 800 Visayan natives to form the first Catholic community.

Mass was celebrated Wednesday at the site of the first Mass on Philippine soil
Mass was celebrated Wednesday at the site of the first Mass on Philippine soil

Jubilee celebrations

These events marked the birth of Christianity in the Philippines. Now, 500 years later, the Catholic Church is celebrating this milestone with a year-long jubilee.

The fifth centenary celebrations officially kick off on Easter Sunday, 4 April.

Pilgrims who visit one of 500 “Jubilee churches” anytime until 22 April 2022 will have the opportunity to receive a plenary indulgence.

Another Mass was held at the foot of a giant cross on Homonhon island
Another Mass was held at the foot of a giant cross on Homonhon island

Gift of faith to share

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has dedicated the entire jubilee year to the theme “Gifted to Give”.

Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao, the president of the Conference, has described the theme to Vatican Radio as encouraging Catholics to recognize the faith as “a gift from God.”

“Faith helps us to navigate through the journey of life,” he said, “and our faith is lived not only individually but also in the family and in the community.”

“With the awareness of being gifted,” he added, “comes the desire to share this faith.”

Archbishop Valles said the Church will spend the year helping Catholics to renew their appreciation of the faith, while realizing their mission to share it with others.

Pope Francis speaks to Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle after Mass in St. Peter's
Pope Francis speaks to Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle after Mass in St. Peter's

Pope’s encouragement for Filipinos

Though the jubilee officially starts on Sunday, Pope Francis anticipated it with Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on 14 March.

Speaking to Rome’s Filipino community, as well as to their compatriots around the globe, the Pope thanked them for their “discreet and hardworking presence” which he called a “testimony of faith.”

On this special 500th anniversary, he said, Filipinos are called to “persevere in the work of evangelization.”

“The Christian proclamation that you have received needs constantly to be brought to others,” said Pope Francis. “The Gospel message of God’s closeness cries out to be expressed in love for our brothers and sisters.”

Listen to our report
31 March 2021, 12:30