On Easter Sunday 1521, Antonio Pigafetta, the diarist who wrote about Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation, chronicled the first mass in the Philippines- held in Limasawa Island. The Legazpi expedition of 1565 created colonies that helped plant Catholicism to Filipinos. Now, 500 years later, the Philippines is only one of two predominantly Catholic countries in Asia, and the third country with the most Catholic faithful in the world, after Brazil and Mexico. As of 2015, approximately 84 million Filipinos, or roughly 85% of the population are Roman Catholic. This year, in what would have been a momentous event, the Philippines will be celebrating 500 years of Christianity with the theme “Gifted to Give” from Matthew 10:8 NIV (Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.) Given this, Filipino Catholics are encouraged by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) to answer the call to mission. But we are in the midst of a pandemic. All public gatherings are shut down. In this dire and seemingly hopeless situation, in this time of Covid-19, is faith still relevant?
The Catholic Church has always been a major driving force in Philippine society. Despite the separation of church and state, Christian faith and values have a strong influence over decisions in the government and how the citizens respond to it. In the 1986 EDSA revolution, the Catholic Church, through the urgent call of Manila’s then-Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, launched the people to action against a 29-year-old dictatorship. 15 years later, the church also helped initiate the 2001 EDSA Dos to oust then-President Joseph Estrada. The Catholic Church’s influence is deeply rooted in the lives of the Filipinos. The Church is considered the world’s biggest charitable organization, with thousands of schools, clinics, and orphanages in the country, not to mention, around the world. It also heads non-profit organizations like Caritas, whose vision is to create a spirit-led community free of poverty, committed to love for the common good. Being a predominantly Catholic country, three of the top universities are Catholic, giving quality education not only to Catholic children, but also to non-Catholics as well. Many elementary and secondary schools are under Catholic congregations such as Ordo Sancti Benedicti (OSB) of St. Scholastica's College Manila, Order of Preachers (OP) of Colegio de San Juan de Letran, and Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB) of Don Bosco Technical Institute.
The pandemic has put the world on a standstill and has dampened so many grand plans - including the 500th anniversary of Catholicism in the Philippines. As soon as lockdowns were announced, the Archdiocese of Manila declared that all mass services will be held online via Facebook and YouTube. The rest of the country soon followed suit. The prohibition of mass gatherings prevented the celebration of Holy Week and other traditional events, like fiestas, celebrations that are so important to the Filipino faith that the Vatican deemed it important to grant the country special privileges to celebrate the Feast of the Santo Niño de Cebú and the Traslacion of the Black Nazarene. Sadly, due to this pandemic, the grand celebration the Church was planning wasn't able to come to fruition. Through all these, the celebration isn't about the pomp and circumstance, but it is a call to have a more personal relationship with the Lord. During Pope Francis’ homily to kickstart the 500 years of Christianity celebration held at the Vatican last March 14, he said, “You received the joy of the Gospel: the good news that God so loved us that he gave his Son for us. And this joy is evident in your people. We see it in your eyes, on your faces, in your songs and in your prayers. [...] I want to thank you, then, for the joy you bring to the whole world and to our Christian communities.” As Pope Francis said, Filipinos are incredibly joyful- we are resilient in the face of natural disasters and even a pandemic. We find a reason to smile and remain positive. This is the mission that we must bring to the world, that in the midst of sadness and depression, there is cause to rejoice and be grateful.
Pope Francis tells us that this is because of our strong faith. There are so many migrant Filipinos around the world, and when they move, they bring their faith. Pope Francis said that “I have often said that here in Rome, Filipino women are ‘smugglers’ of faith! Because wherever they go to work, they sow the faith. It is part of your genes, a blessed ‘infectiousness’ that I urge you to preserve.” Faith has become one of the defining features of the Filipino people abroad. But again- is faith still relevant to Filipinos? Faith is still relevant to us- and always will be. For us, faith is our support when we are burdened by obstacles. It gives us a map to follow when we are lost and holds us up when we are falling apart. Especially in times like this, we are in need of structure in our lives. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Faith to the Filipinos is always believing- believing that it will get better, that this pandemic will end soon.