By Msgr. Jonas Achacoso
This year 2021, marks the 500th anniversary of Christianity in the Philippine islands. The historical background of the celebration is the arrival of the fleet headed by Ferdinand Magellan. His principal mission was to find a westward route to the Moluccas Islands, where spices were thought to be found. Magellan, as we know, was a Portuguese explorer in the service of the Spanish crown.
The fleet included Father Pedro Valderrama serving as the chaplain and Antonio Pigafetta, the whole expedition’s Italian chronicler. The entire fleet was composed of five ships, only three would make it to the Philippines, and only one could circumnavigate the earth and made it back to Spain.
On March 16, 1521, Magellan’s fleet anchored in the Philippine archipelago in desperate need of provisions, having been starved during the long journey, and respite for his sea-beaten, sick crew. It is in this context that Magellan’s fleet would encounter some natives in the area. In the beginning, there was a friendly exchange of goods. Magellan offered them fineries from Europe. The Europeans enjoyed the hospitality of the natives, who gave them fresh water, coconut, fruits, etc.
The first Mass was celebrated in Limasawa Island on March 31, 1521, on Easter Sunday. The natives helped set up a platform for the Mass and even participated in the Eucharistic celebration. This was the first time a cross was planted in the Philippines. Magellan offered to teach them the Catholic faith, which the natives reciprocated. On April 14, 1521, the third Sunday of Easter, baptisms were administered to 800 men, women, and children.
One of those baptized was Juana, the wife of Raja Humabon. They were the governing couple in Cebu. Juana saw the statue of the Infant Jesus and asked the foreigners to have it as a gift. Up to our present time, the same image of the Santo Niño is venerated on Cebu’s island. When Pope Francis celebrated Mass in celebration of the 500th anniversary in the Basilica of St. Peter, the entrance procession featured these two Christian emblems of Magellan’s Cross and the image of the Santo Niño.
The quincentenary celebration theme is “Gifted to Give,” which is inspired by the words of Jesus in Mt. 10:8 — “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons. Without cost you have received; without cost, you are to give.”
This milestone inspires gratitude for the gift of faith and the responsibility of sharing that faith. As Filipinos are scattered worldwide, the Pope fondly called them “smugglers of faith.” The Pope ended his homily with this exhortation, “On this very important anniversary for God’s holy people in the Philippines, I also want to urge you to persevere in the work of evangelization … The Christian proclamation that you have received needs constantly to be brought to others.”
Hence, in the Diocese of Brooklyn and the whole country, the Filipinos will have to be “smugglers of faith.”
Msgr. Achacoso is the author of ‘Due Process in Church Administration’ (2018), recipient of Arcangelo Ranaudo Award (Vatican City), and Administrator of Corpus Christi Church in Woodside, NY.