The Philippines, a sovereign republic made up of an estimated 7,000 islands, is a tropical paradise subject to the occasional typhoon. In 1585, the Philippines became a Spanish colony, named after King Philip II of Spain. The Filipino language, based on Tagalog and English, is replete with Spanish words and proper names.
Thanks to Spanish rule, the Filipinos were well evangelized and well catechized. Eventually, the Philippines succeeded in becoming what is today the third most Catholic nation in the world after Brazil and Mexico. While Brazil and Mexico may have more baptized Catholics, the Brazilians and Mexicans are not nearly as fervent in their practice of Catholicism as the Filipinos. In major Filipino airports, one can hear announcements over loudspeakers advertising Mass times and the availability of priests for Confession.
Aside from an abundance of brightly colored, Spanish “mission” style architecture (also found in the California Missions and in many southwestern dioceses of the United States), one of the most striking Spanish influences on Filipino Catholic culture—albeit an extreme one for certain Western sensibilities—is recognizable in the mock crucifixions that take place on Good Friday (although they are not encouraged by the hierarchy). It is a cringe-worthy devotion to the Passion of Our Lord but one that is taken as seriously in the Philippines as are the Holy Week processions (known as misteri in Italian) in modern-day Sicily, which are likewise an historical remnant of Spanish rule on that ancient island of Magna Graecia (“Greater Greece”).
One of the world’s oldest Catholic universities was founded in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, with its doors still open for business and visited by three popes (Paul VI, John Paul II, and Francis). Santo Tomaso possesses a unique charter that is both royal and papal. Historically, the presence of religious orders in the Philippines has been ubiquitous: Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, and Salesians (among others) lay claim to the rich Catholic patrimony and cultural heritage of the Philippines.
If one had to guess where Catholicism first took root on the Filipino Archipelago and where the first Catholic Mass was celebrated, one would probably suggest a big city like Manila or Cebu. However, the first Mass was celebrated on Easter Sunday in 1521 in Limasawa in Southern Leyte, located in what is now the Diocese of Maasin (formally erected by Pope Saint Paul VI only in 1968). In 2021, the Diocese will mark the 500th anniversary of that historic event with a special Mass and Eucharistic procession to take place on March 31.
The Diocese of Maasin belongs to the ecclesiastical province of Cebu, which is the country’s seventh-largest city. Somewhat counter-intuitively, we must say that Cebu, not Manila, is considered the spiritual heart and soul of the Catholic Church in the Philippines, given the plethora of pilgrimage sites and sacred shrines located there. The Cathedral of Maasin, which dates back to the early eighteenth century, is striking for its cool stone and airy feel. Near the Cathedral is a spacious complex encompassing the bishop’s residence and the diocesan seminary, one of two in the diocese.
The Diocese of Maasin is definitely on the Church’s missionary map. Bishop Precioso Cantillas, the Salesian Ordinary, known for his beautiful singing voice (a characteristic trait of many Filipinos for whom karaoke is a national pastime of sorts), generously shares priests with dioceses less blessed with vocations, thus manifestly expressing the diocese’s “catholicity” or “universality” in keeping with the missionary nature of the Church, as defined in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (see Lumen Gentium and Ad Gentes). Indeed, it has been said that the Filipino clergy are “the new Irish,” inasmuch as they are as prevalent in dioceses around the world today as were the Irish clergy of yore.
As the economically poor and remote Diocese of Maasin engages in three years of celebratory preparations for the 500th anniversary of the First Mass in the Philippines—a Mass attended by the crew of the explorer Ferdinand Magellan—the local Church is seeking to raise not only awareness of its vibrant presence in Southeast Asia but also much-needed funds for such projects as the renovation of a parish sanctuary, the construction of a light tower, the erection of lamp posts in secluded and dimly lit areas of the island, the formation on behalf of the Limasawa locals of a Housing Village, and the implementation of plans to improve living conditions and the environment on the island.
Readers would be happy to note that, as of the First Sunday of Advent 2019, the Diocese of Maasin has become the first diocese of the Latin Rite to mandate that all Masses of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite be celebrated ad orientem—that is to say, with the priest and lay faithful facing in the same direction: toward “Liturgical East.” This, of course, is the liturgical orientation of the Mass presumed in the rubrics of the Revised Roman Missal in both the original Latin text and in the official English translation. Faithful Catholics everywhere should rejoice in this courageous decision of Bishop Cantillas, hoping and praying that other bishops will take notice and follow in his footsteps.
Readers can show their support and gratitude to Bishop Cantillas by making generous contributions in honor of the upcoming 500th anniversary and for the upkeep of his thriving Catholic schools and seminarians known for their orthodoxy and unabashed fidelity to the Catholic mission and identity that traces its roots to the time the first Spanish missionaries landed on the shores of Limasawa, five centuries ago.
Despite many a modernist and secularist incursion, the Philippines remains a sparkling jewel of authentic Catholicism and a veritable beacon of apostolic light in the distant Pacific Ocean and South China Sea.
Donations can be made to: Dennis M. Gagantas and Garnet John D. Quirong, Metrobank Maasin City Branch, Account No. 357-335772352.
Photo credit: Facebook.com/Pope Paul VI Minor Seminary, Diocese of Maasin