The story of the Philippines is the story of the Church’s “most successful missionary effort in Asia” (Bokenkotter, 2005). Like the proverbial grain of the mustard seed sown in fertile earth, the growth and development of the Church and the Philippines were the fruits of the labors of missionary friars, sustained by an indigenous clergy, and made vibrant by a faithful people. Jesuit historian Fr. John Schumacher writes: “Whether one is a believing Catholic or not, the development of the Filipino nation cannot be understood without a knowledge of the major, often decisive role that the Church has played, well or ill, in that process, and continues to play.”

I. Spain conquers the Philippines with the Cross of ChristII. A Church established by missionary zealIII. Spiritual life flourishes among FilipinosIV. A Filipino clergy emergesV. A missionary church for Asia and the world

I. Spain conquers the Philippines with the Cross of Christ

Conquista de las Islas Filipinas (Fray Gaspar de San Agust+¡n, Madrid, 1698)

Catholicism came to the Philippines with the European discovery of the archipelago. The explorer Ferdinand Magellan set foot on the islands in 1521 and planted the cross on the island of Cebu, cradle of Christianity in the Philippines. There, he spearheaded the conversion of Rajah Humabon and his consort Harah Amihan, who took the baptismal names Carlos and Juana (after the Spanish king and queen mother). This happened within weeks of the offering of the first Mass in the islands by Fr. Pedro de Valderrama, chaplain of the voyage, on March 31, 1521. Magellan had named the islands the “Archipelago of St. Lazarus.” On the day he first sighted land (March 16, 1521), it was a Saturday, the eve of Passion Sunday, when in the old Roman liturgy, the gospel was the resurrection of St. Lazarus. The name that stuck however was “Las Islas Filipinas” (the Philippine Islands), given by Ruy Lopez de Villalobos who headed one of the follow-up expeditions after the death of Magellan in the hands of the natives in the Battle of Mactan.

The evangelization of the Philippines began with the arrival of the conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in Cebu on April 27, 1565. The natives fled and burned their homes, but in one hut was recovered the image of the Santo Niño, the Child Jesus. It wasMagellan’s baptismal gift to Queen Juana, and today the object of the largest Christian devotion in the country. Legazpi called the first Spanish settlement the “City of the Most Holy Name of Jesus,” the feast attached to the devotion to the Holy Child.

Street map of Intramuros, 1671

The Augustinian friars who came with Legazpi, led by Fray Andres de Urnadeta, built a church and convent in honor of the Santo Niño in Cebu. In 1571 they went with Legazpi as he conquered Manila and turned the then bustling Muslim settlement into the walled capital (Intramuros) of the new Spanish colony. For 13 years the Augustinians were alone in the missionary effort. The Franciscans arrived in 1578, followed by the Jesuits in 1581. The Dominican mission arrived in 1587. But the first Dominican to land on the islands was Fray Domingo de Salazar, who accompanied the Jesuits six years earlier and took possession of the newly established Diocese of Manila as first bishop. The See of Manila was a suffragan to Mexico until August 14, 1595 when it was elevated to an archdiocese, with the dioceses of Cebu, Nueva Segovia and Caceres (Naga) as suffragans.

Domingo de Salazar, OP, first bishop of Manila

The choice of Salazar as first bishop was propitious. Salazar was a disciple of Bartolome de las Casas, who defended the Amerindians from the abuses of the Spanish colonizers. Salazar was bent on doing the same in the Indies. The legitimacy of the conquest was a question that vexed the young colony, and was addressed precisely by the Synod of Manila convoked by Salazar in 1582. The Synod Fathers concluded that Spain must exercise political dominion over the Philippines to fulfill its primary duty of evangelization, as commissioned by the Pope.Salazar’s synod, more importantly, condemned slavery and resolved to spread the Gospel using the native languages, a key decision that preserved the local tongues.

As expected, Salazar encountered stiff opposition and had to go to Spain to personally plead for the rights of the natives before the royal court. Upon his death the struggle was continued by a fellow Dominican, Fray Miguel de Benavides, who pointed out that tributes had been collected unjustly from unbelievers. Spain must make restitution, he argued, and obtain a just title to the Philippine islands. This could be done only if the natives submitted freely to the colonizers

The Catholic king acceded. The victorious Benavides returned to the Philippines, now the bishop of Nueva Segovia, and himself oversaw the gatherings in which Filipinos voluntarily agreed to be the Spanish king’s subjects.This was the reply of one Filipino to the question of ratification: “We answer that we want the king of Spain to be also our king and ruler because he has sent Spaniards to free us from the tyranny and domination of our own rulers, and also because he has sent us missionary fathers to help us against the Spaniards, ready to defend us against them.”


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_____. ed. (2006). Unknown Aspects of the Philippine Revolution. Makati: St. Pauls Philippines.

Gutierrez, L. (2010). Domingo de Salazar, O.P.: First Bishop of the Philippines, 1512-1594 (A Study of His Life and Work). Manila: University of Santo Tomas Publishing House.

Gutierrez, L., Suñga, E., Santos, R. & de Jesus, A. (1999). The Archdiocese of Manila: A Pilgrimage in Time (1565-1999). Manila: The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Manila.

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_____. (1999). Father Jose Burgos: A Documentary History(with Spanish Documents and their Translation). Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

_____. (2009). Growth and Decline: Essays on Philippine Church History. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

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