By Robin Gomes
Pope Francis will mark 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines with a Holy Mass on Sunday in St. Peter’s Basilica. Due to the pandemic, only a limited number of faithful will be allowed at the 10 am (Rome time) Mass on 14 March.
The Christian faith that arrived in the Philippines 500 years ago, is very much alive today in the joyful witness to evangelical charity by Catholics, even in hard times, says Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP). The Philippine Church has been preparing for this great jubilee celebration for 9 years, with each year having a specific theme.
It all began when the great 16th-century Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, who led a Spanish expedition to the so-called ‘East Indies’, 1519 to 1522, reached what is today known as the Philippines on 16 March 1521. His sailors had planned to remain there for a month and a half. It is believed that during that time, the first Mass was celebrated on Filipino soil on March 31, 1521, on the island of Limasawa, south of Leyte. Some 800 were baptized to form the first Catholic community.
The Catholic Church in the Philippines has chosen Easter Sunday, 4 April, to formally inaugurate the year-long celebration of the 5th centenary. On that occasion, in a ceremony, Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), will flag off the opening of the “Holy Doors” of pilgrim churches across the nation. The theme of the jubilee celebration is “Gifted to Give”.
“Faith is a gift from God. And so, we are joyful in this special jubilee year,” Archbishop Valles said. He explained to Vatican Radio that they are also joyful because they have experienced that faith has given meaning to life. “In a sense, faith helps us to navigate through the journey of life,” and this faith is lived not only individually but also in the family and in the community.
Witnessing to faith in Jesus in the Asian context, according to Pope Francis, Archbishop Valles said, means to show the joy of believing. “It is joyful to believe and entrust our lives to Jesus.” Life in the Philippines, he said, is difficult but faith helps them to be strong amidst the storms of life and forge ahead, assured that the Lord with them. This is the reason behind the joy of the 500 years of the Christian faith in the Philippines - the joy of living in the Lord.
Commitment to evangelize
This faith also entails the duty to evangelize. But even before we can evangelize, he explained, we first need to “deeply realize and appreciate that we are gifted - gifted with faith from the Lord”.
“That is why our theme for the celebration is ‘Gifted to Give’”, he said. With the awareness that you are gifted, “also comes the desire to share this faith”. The entire program of the celebration of the jubilee year, the archbishop said, is centred around this theme of reviewing and appreciating again the gift of faith, and realizing the duty of the mission to share this faith.
“Five hundred years ago, we had that first encounter of faith,” the Philippine bishops’ president said. The first seed of faith was planted in their forefathers, and today the Church in the Philippines is trying to help the faithful not only to encounter Jesus personally but also to meet Him in those they serve, especially the needy, the poor and the marginalized.
Charity amid hard times
However, in the present context of the pandemic, Archbishop Valles said, it is difficult to witness to evangelical charity. He spoke about the bad times the Filipinos have been going through over the past two years.
At the end of 2019, there were strong earthquakes in the Philippines, killing many lives and destroying numerous homes. At the start of 2020, another volcano erupted near Manila, causing the evacuation of thousands of people. By March of that year, the Covid-19 pandemic struck the Philippines. The end of the year saw 2 strong typhoons.
“I’m just amazed at our people and our churches,” the CBCP president wondered. “It was a difficult situation but I would believe that the Church in the Philippines, in a very silent way, became a witness to evangelical charity.”
Both the rich and the poor went out to help the victims of these tragedies. During the pandemic, the dioceses organized in all the parishes the delivery of food packs to poor families who lost the means of their livelihood.
In his own Archdiocese of Davao, Archbishop Valles pointed out, he was very hesitant to make a public appeal to help poor families whose breadwinners lost their jobs but was touched by the response of the people. It is the same story in other dioceses of the Philippines, he said.
Recently, when the vaccination programme kicked off in the Philippines, churches volunteered to offer the government their facilities as vaccination centers, especially in remote areas. Hence, when asked to be witnesses to evangelical charity, to be a house with open doors that offers hope and strength, Archbishop Valles said they stood up to the challenge. He said they still continue to be a Church that, above all, is able to offer charity, mercy and compassion in times of great difficulty.