"While the way to full reconciliation may still be far off, a journey of a thousand miles always begins with a single step."
The 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines would have been one of the most important events in the largest Catholic nation in Asia. Despite the expectedly muted celebration of the first recorded Easter Sunday mass in Limasawa and the first Catholic baptism in Cebu, however, not all is lost in this year’s quadricentennial celebration, despite the challenges posed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Despite the “aggiornamento” envisioned by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Catholic Church in the Philippines has kept its distance from efforts to promote the ecumenical cause, that is, the unity of all Christians. While in many ways, the Catholic Church has collaborated with other Christian churches such as the publication of a common translation of the Bible, such cooperation has not really trickled down to the parish or diocesan level.
The historical hurts of the past must have contributed to this uneasy relationship between Christian churches in the Philippines. For three centuries, the Roman Catholic Church held on to an unquestioned hegemony of faith. But as soon as Spain’s patronage ended along with its colonial grip over the islands, many Filipino Catholics saw it as an opportunity to separate themselves from papal authority and decided to establish their own church.
That act of separation—schism from the eyes of Rome±continues to persist to our day as the “Iglesia Filipina Independiente”—the Philippine Independent Church, also known as the Aglipayan Church, named after its founder, Fr. Gregorio Aglipay.
Soon, several missionaries came to the Philippines, to propagate the Protestant faith and sadly, to proselytize Catholics to join them and abandon the religion of their birth.
Over time, the Catholic Church managed to accept the new political order and tolerate the presence of the newly established Protestant churches—again thought to be heretics by Rome. After all, an overwhelming majority of Filipinos remained Catholics, thus allowing the Church to maintain its moral, social and institutional dominance over Philippine society.
Suddenly the Second Vatican Council changed it all. From being schismatics and heretics, non-Catholic Christians were now considered as our “separated brethren.” From exchanging anathemas with each other, Catholics and Protestants were found gathering together for prayer, studying at each other’s seminaries and working on common outreach programs.
The sad reality is that the Church in the Philippines tarried in treading the ecumenical path. While Catholics and Protestants in the country began to acknowledge each more politely, a lot was wanting in terms of concrete efforts for ecumenism. Even the yearly celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at the national level does not seem to affect ecumenical relations at the parish or diocesan levels. It seems that Christ’s prayer, “Ut unum sint” seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Until of course this year, when the quadricentennial celebration brought Catholics and Protestants alike back to the common origins of the Christian faith in these islands. In fact, on Pentecost Sunday this year, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines issued a common statement with the National Council of Churches of the Philippines and the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches. The statement entitled “One Ecumenical Family: A Unity Statement of the Christian Churches in the Philippines” was an invitation to all Christians in the Philippines to celebrate a common heritage of the Gospel message.
Another similar ecumenical milestone happened again on August 3, the anniversary of the “Proclamation of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente,” marking the definite separation of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) from the Roman Catholic Church more than a hundred years ago. But what used to be a day of division ushered in a path of reconciliation for the two churches.
Inside the IFI’s National Cathedral of the Holy Child, IFI bishops and their Roman Catholic counterparts took part in a “liturgical launching” of two documents—“Celebrating the Gift of Faith, Learning from the Past, Journeying Together” and the “Mutual Recognition of Baptism between the Iglesia Filipina Independiente and the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines”.
The first statement fittingly acknowledged the shared beginnings of both the IFI and the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines. The Roman Catholic Church strived to live the mission within the context of an expanding empire pushing the boundaries against all odds, while the IFI fought for a truly Filipino church and against the alleged abuses by the Spanish colonial establishment. The division started not with questions of doctrine and faith, but against the injustices of colonial rule.
The second statement was even more historically significant. In its early years, the IFI went through a period of “theological wandering” leading to the adoption of Unitarian beliefs. Acting out of prudence, the Roman Catholic Church decided not to recognize baptisms conducted by the IFI. This policy did not change even when the IFI finally upheld the Trinitarian faith in the 1940s. While Roman Catholics recognized baptisms conducted by other Protestants, such as the Lutherans and Episcopalians—no such recognition was given to IFI baptisms. As a result, converts from the IFI, or those seeking to be married in the Catholic Church had to be re-baptized.
In fact, when Pope Francis visited the Philippines in 2015, the then Supreme Bishop of the IFI, Efraim Fajutagana asked the pope to recognize their church’s baptismal rites to ease mixed marriages and facilitate the enrollment of Aglipayan children in Roman Catholic schools. The belated reply to their petition came in March this year, when in the Catholic Church’s revised list of validly administered baptisms by other Christian churches now included the Iglesia Filipina Independiente.
It was indeed providential that the anniversary of the 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines, starting with the first baptisms in Cebu, would lead to this historic act of recognizing the validity of IFI baptisms, reinforcing in fact and in faith, in the words of the Second Vatican Council in its Decree on Ecumenism that “all who have been justified by faith in baptism are incorporated into Christ; they are accepted as brothers [and sisters] by the children of the Catholic Church.”
During the said prayer service, it was announced that both statements will be read in all IFI and Roman Catholic churches on August 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Indeed it was a powerful affirmation of the strong devotion of both churches to Mary. After the handing of the documents, representatives of the IFI and the Roman Catholic Church exchanged images of Mary. The IFI presented the Our Lady of Balintawak, an IFI Marian devotion that pleaded for the longed-for independence of our country. On the other hand, the Roman Catholics gave an image of the Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage, long venerated in Antipolo and one of the oldest Marian shrines in the country.
In their common statement, both IFI and Roman Catholics committed to “ask and pray for mutual forgiveness for any injuries inflicted in the past” and “strive for the healing and purification of memories among our members.” While the way to full reconciliation may still be far off, as they always say, a journey of a thousand miles always begins with a single step.