Christianizing the Philippines

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            As Spain began to explore the rest of the world, a distinction was made between two kinds of colonies: the farm colony and the exploitation colony. Located in a different climate and with different goods that enjoyed a market back in Spain, the Philippines belonged to the latter. The reasons to migrate to the Philippines were strongly economic in nature, and Spain saw that there were vast lands to exploit for their benefit.

But the Spaniards did not stop with monopolizing the country’s economic resources. They also sought to monopolize the culture, language, government and religion of the Philippines. This process is called Hispanization.

Aside from the economic benefits, the Spaniards felt it was their duty to convert the Filipinos and preserve the Faith in the islands. It was necessary to colonize the people because otherwise, the Christian faith could not be properly propagated and the Filipinos would return to their pagan ways. With this, the Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines was justified.


Characteristics of Pre-Hispanic Philippine Religion

            Philippine cults were a blending of monotheism and polytheism. Although they believed in a Supreme Being, they still had a pantheon of other gods, believed in a spirit world of anitos and diwatas, and engaged in ancestor-worship and animism.

Their concept of a Supreme Being was a god who created the universe and ruled all men. They called him “Bathala” in Tagalog, and “Abba” or “Laon” in Visayan.

            However, this Supreme Being was only one among a pantheon of other gods who were protectors for all the other activities in which Filipinos were engaged.

The spirit world of anitos and diwatas was composed of both good spirits and bad. The good spirits were the ancestors of the Filipinos, while the bad spirits were their enemies. They believed some of these spirits could act as intermediaries between the living and the dead.

Ancestor worship was a reflection of Chinese influence on Filipino culture. The Filipinos worshipped their ancestors by carving idols in stone, ivory, and wood. Ancestor worship also showed the Filipinos believed in an afterlife. There were only two places where one could go: heaven (kalualhatian to the Tagalogs, ologan to the Visayans), or hell (kasamaan in Tagalog, solad in Visayan).

            Filipinos also worshipped nature, with sacred groves and caves as their places of worship. These groves and caves took the place of temples. Here, Filipinos worshipped the sun and moon, among other elements of nature. They also adored certain animals and even the plants.

            All these comprised the religious beliefs of the pre-Hispanic Filipinos. Magical practices and superstitions were interwoven in these beliefs, and there was no fixed calendar for their religious celebrations. Rather, offerings to the spirits depended on the call of specific occasions. These ritual sacrifices were performed by the babaylan or the katalonan, who were usually elder women.

            To the Spaniards, such practices and beliefs were evidence that Filipinos were being enslaved by the devil. And for them, it was their duty to free the Filipinos from this enslavement. In addition to this, they thought the Filipinos’ social organization was unjust and tyrannical, and the native government was evil in principle. Given all these, the Spaniards then saw themselves as “liberators” rather than “conquerors.”


The problem with Christianizing the Filipinos

With the desire to convert pagans to the Christian faith, missionaries accompanied the Spanish voyages to the Far East. But upon arriving in the Philippines, the geography of the islands posed a big challenge to the Spaniards. 500,000 Filipinos were scattered throughout the islands in tiny clusters. They realized that the only way for a few hundred Spanish priests to reach these Filipinos was if they resettled the latter in more permanent communities.

This did not sit well with Filipinos. For one, sentimental ties kept them from leaving their rice fields. For another, fishing and hunting were among the main sources of their food. Moving to villages would eliminate these forms of livelihood, and would threaten to “destroy the whole economic balance of existence”.

            But resettlement would prove to be the prerequisite to adequately propagating the Christian faith. By resettling the people into more permanent communities, their lives were rearranged in both time and space. It became easier for the missionaries to come and visit them regularly, eventually learning the language of the people. The Filipinos, for their part, now had the time to learn about the Christian faith since they were no longer preoccupied with hunting and fishing all day long, after having learned to use the araro and waiting for a harvest instead.

            Learning the language of the people was especially important to the missionaries. Since the natives far outnumbered the missionaries, it was more practical for one missionary to learn several native languages, than to teach the natives the Castillan tongue. It was also thought that the Filipinos might respond more to Christianity if it was preached in their own tongue and not in a foreign language.

            As permanent settlements solved the problem of reaching the Filipinos and learning their language, the priests could now properly preach the Christian faith.


Dividing the islands among the missionaries

The Augustinians were the first religious order to come to the Philippines, as five of them –led by Fray Andres de Urdaneta—came with Legazpi in 1565.

            Although two missionaries were left out of the original five, Fray Diego de Herrera and Fray Martin de Rada decided to still preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments, erect houses and convents of their Order, and admit novices. Eventually, more Augustinians and missionaries from other orders came to the Philippines as well.

            Being the first in the country, the Augustinians had the entire archipelago as their mission territory. But after the arrival of the Franciscans (1578), the Jesuits (1581), the Dominicans (1587), and the Augustinian Recollects (1606), the islands were divided among the five orders in 1595.

            The Visayan islands were first divided between the Augustinians and the Jesuits, and later the Recollects after their arrival. Mindanao went to the Jesuits, and again the Recollects later on.

            Luzon was divided into seven provinces for administrative purposes. Cagayan, Pangasinan, and parts of Bataan went to the Dominicans, while Laguna and Camarines went to the Franciscans. Parts of what are now Rizal, Cavite and Laguna went to the Jesuits. Finally, the Augustinians had Ilocos, Pampanga and Taal-Balayan.

The City of Manila and the Port of Cavite were considered free zones, so the religious orders each maintained a house and a church in these areas. Also, the Augustinians, Jesuits, and Recollects had houses and churches in Cebu City and its immediate surrounding area.

            With these specific mission territories, each order was able to concentrate on learning not more than four native languages. In learning the language, the missionaries were not only able to preach the Gospel in the native tongue, but also write grammar books and dictionaries that preserved these native languages.     


The process of Christianization

The cabecera-visita complex

            The missionaries had to resettle the Filipinos, but the latter could not be forced to move into the new villages. Since coercion would not work, the Filipinos had to be enticed to move. Although the Filipinos always flocked to the churches during ceremonial occasions and sometimes even built “Sunday houses” near the church, they vacated these houses after the religious celebration.

            The cabecera as the capital of the parish was then built and designed to be the location of a compact village. With the plaza at the center of the village, the church would be on one side, the school on the second, the government hall on the third, and the houses of prominent townspeople on the fourth. The homes would be lined up straight, starting from the sides of the plaza and each of its four corners. Thus, the cabecera was very strategically situated in every village.

            Visita chapels were also built in every parish. This was because Filipinos did not want to move into these villages in large numbers, and there was a shortage of ecclesiastical personnel. So nonresident clergy whose headquarters were at the cabecera visited these chapels regularly –hence the name visita— and people living in the sitios would attend the religious services at the visita nearest to them.



            The missionaries were met with hostility and sullen distrust, but they did not impose themselves on the Filipinos. Instead, they requested that some children –usually that of the chieftains—be committed to their care. These children proved to be more receptive to the Christian faith than the adults, that after their indoctrination the chieftains themselves were convinced. Once the chieftain converted, his followers were also baptized soon after.

            Filipinos also took to the sacrament of baptism because they believed that, aside from wiping away one’s sins, it helped cure the ailments of the body. This was nothing alien to them, as their pagan rituals had also stressed the cures of illnesses.

            The pre-Hispanic Filipino sense of kinship also played a role in the acceptance of baptism. Before, majority of the Filipinos thought, “I will become a Christian as soon as the rest do.” But because the majority was slowly converting to the Christian faith, the Filipinos’ line of thinking became “We desire to become Christians because all the rest are Christians.” This shift signaled the Filipinos’ acceptance of the Christian faith.


            Baptism needed to be followed up with further instruction in the faith. In 1593, Fray Juan de Placencia authored the Doctrina Christiana, which was approved by the Synod of Manila. It was then translated and adapted into the various Filipino dialects, as the Filipinos were taught in their native languages.

            However, the high costs of printing and the use of fragile rice paper prevented the Filipinos from receiving their own copies of the catechisms. The catechisms, then, belonged only to the Spanish clergy, and indoctrination was done orally.

            The religious organized catechism classes usually held in the cabecera villages during Sundays. Because of the shortage of priests, the brighter students taught their less advanced classmates. Sons of the chieftains also boarded in the convento for a few years to gain a more intensive training in the doctrine.

Although the Christian faith was taught in the Filipinos’ native tongue, the key concepts of Christianity were never translated because the Filipinos might confuse or identify these concepts with their pagan ones. These terms were usually taught in the Spanish form, and sometimes the Latin term was also used.           

However, it should be noted that the level of instruction did not depend so much on the quality of teaching, but on the density of the population in the area. Those living near the cabecera church usually had a better understanding and grasp of the doctrine since their lessons were more regular. This was unlike those living in the visita, whose frequency of lessons depended on when the priests would visit them.

            Of course, the process of Christianization is much more detailed than this, but this paper seeks to highlight only certain elements of the process.

Philippine elements in Spanish Catholicism

            More than just convert and teach the Filipinos about the Christian faith, the Spaniards wanted these teachings to penetrate their daily lives. To do this, they fostered a series of pious customs that would serve as daily reminders to the Filipinos. However, this was only effective in the cabecera villages because of the presence of a permanent community. Perhaps this was also because the priests would only visit the visitas when they could, and this was not enough to foster such customs in these people.

            The Spaniards also banked on the fact that Filipinos love any excuse for a celebration. Hence, the fiesta system was implemented to try and reach out to everyone, even those living outside the cabecera. The people living in the visitas would be lured periodically into the cabecera because of the fiesta. The fiesta gave the Filipinos an outlet for their gregariousness, and it blended the sacred and the profane.

Among other things, Filipinos also took to the use of holy water, and their need for it was said to be insatiable. As the country was surrounded by water, it was only understandable that Filipinos would have so much faith in the efficacy of holy water.

Filipinos were also enthusiastic pupils of liturgical music since singing was an integral part of pre-Hispanic culture. It is no wonder that a Eucharistic Celebration today almost seems incomplete without a choir.

            Also, the Catholic tradition required people to have two sponsors during baptism and confirmation, and wedding sponsors were optional. But because Filipinos are a very kinship-oriented people, the trend was to get as many sponsors as you could.

            All of these are ways in which Filipinos accepted the Christian faith, yet made it uniquely their own.

            Aside from these effects in religion, the propagation of the Christian faith also had effects on the Filipino culture. Because the missionaries learned the native languages in order to preach the Gospel, they were also the ones who preserved the native languages by writing grammar books, catechisms, and dictionaries. It was through them that the Filipino language became enriched with Spanish terms that we use until today. And as these words represent new ideas and concepts, it shows how the Spaniards have not only influenced religion and language, but also the Filipinos’ sense of reality.



            The Christianization of the Philippines was not something that happened overnight. It took many years of hardships, trials, and obstacles that needed to be overcome. But eventually, Filipinos took to the religion and made it uniquely their own.

Religion then was one of the agents of Hispanization through which Spanish ideas and language slowly influenced the Filipino culture, shaping it into what it is today.


Reference List

Anderson, Gerald H. 1969. Studies in Philippine Church History. Ithaca: New York.


Bernad, Miguel A. 1972. The Christianization of the Philippines:

Problems and Perspectives. Manila: The Filipiniana Book Guild.


De la Costa, Horacio. 1967. The Jesuits in the Philippines 1581-1768.

Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.


Phelan, John Leddy. 1959. The Hispanization of the Philippines.

Spanish Aims and Filipino Responses 1565-1700.

Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.