As the Philippines prepares to celebrate 500 years of the arrival of Christianity, Fr. James Kroeger leads us in this series into a discovery journey of the landmark events that comprise the marvelous history of faith in the Philippine archipelago.
PUBLISHED ONFeb 2021
Background and Context. The Philippine archipelago is composed of more than 7,107 islands and islets, of which the largest are Luzon in the north and Mindanao in the south. In Central Philippines, there are several medium-sized islands known as the Visayan Islands. Stretching from the southwestern tip of Mindanao toward Borneo is a chain of small islands collectively known as the Sulu Archipelago. The population of southwestern Mindanao and Sulu is predominantly Muslim.
There is evidence of human settlements in the islands as early as 20,000 BC. The small black people, called Negritos by the Spaniards, were the first to arrive. Later they were driven into the mountainous interior when immigrants belonging to the brown-skinned Malay race reached the islands. Today one finds various hill tribes such as the Aetas and Ifugaos of Luzon and the Mansakas, Mandayas, and Bukidnon of Mindanao; many of these peoples still practice their traditional religions. Malay Filipinos, who occupy the lowlands and constitute the majority of the population, have become Christians. They form several distinct groups: the Bisayans, Tagalogs, Ilokanos, and Bikolanos are among the most numerous.
Arrival of the Spaniards. In March 1521 Ferdinand Magellan arrived in search of spices and converts for Charles I (Emperor Charles V). It was the Emperor’s son Prince Philip, later King Philip II, whose name was bestowed on the islands by Villalobos in 1542. Lapulapu, a native chieftain of Cebu, resisted Magellan’s claim of Spanish sovereignty. In 1565, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi established the first permanent Spanish settlement in Cebu. In 1571, Legazpi moved his headquarters to Manila, making it the capital of the colony.
By the end of the century, most of the lowlands were under Spanish rule, except for some southern islands which remained Muslim. Islam had been introduced in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century. When the Spaniards encountered Muslims in the Philippines, their hostile attitudes based on Muslim-Christian encounters in Europe colored their outlook and relations. These very negative attitudes were also transmitted to non-Muslim Filipinos.
Current Religious Realities. Recent statistics show that the Philippine population has well exceeded 100 million. The five major religious bodies and their percentage of the local population are Roman Catholicism (82.9%), Protestantism (5.2%), Islam (4.6%), Iglesia Filipina Independiente (2.6%), and Iglesia ni Cristo (2.3%). Today, the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines is a major actor within the wider Asian and universal Church, being the world’s third-largest local Church (after Brazil and Mexico).