By Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, CM

In the midst of this tension-filled arrangement, the Church continued in its mission of preaching the Gospel. The difficulty of this task was eloquently expressed by De la Costa: “The soldiers and seamen who came to win the Philippines for Spain were accompanied by missionaries who came to win it for the Christian religion. It was easy enough, in theory, to reconcile these aims of colonial policy; in practice, conquest made conversion difficult. What natural attraction, in fact, could the religion of their conquerors have for the conquered? How is it possible to spread the Gospel of Christ with the sword? And yet, the fact remains that the Spaniards did convert the Filipinos to Christianity.”

The intentions of Spanish missionaries were focused on the “spiritual conquest of the minds and hearts of the natives” which in their assessment is the only “ultimate justification for the military conquest.” How did they do this gigantic task? What ways and methods did they use? Some historians give us a hint at these evangelization motives and methods.

Let me mention four areas: reconfiguration of space, education in the faith, sacraments and conversion, inculturation and integral evangelization.

"Bajo de las Campanas": Reconfiguration of Space

Located in scattered spaces within the more than 7000 islands, the native population has been described by the Spanish chroniclers as living “without polity” (sin policia). For the Spaniards, civilization is connected with the city – a concept that harks back to the existence of the Greek polis. To be without polity is to be a barbarian. Thus, to spread civilization and to facilitate the “spiritual conquest”, the dispersed population needs to be congregated, “reduced” into compact villages. People were enticed to live “bajo de la campana”, that is, within hearing of the church bell. Reducción was the term used to describe the same project in colonial Mexico and Peru. This administrative reconfiguration of space was also implemented in the Philippines from 1580s to 1590s.

There were many factors that led to the reduction project being vehemently resisted by the Filipinos. First was economic. Since Filipinos were subsistence farmers, there was no reason for them to leave their small farms and transfer to compact villages. Secondly, new congregated villages became easy targets of Moro raids especially in the Visayas area. Though military coercion was sometimes employed to force people to relocate, the colorful ritual celebrations of the Church on Holy Week, Christmas, or patronal feasts were mainly used to attract them to come to the center (cabecera). With it developed the elaborately vibrant popular Catholicism and religiosity which are prevalent up to this day. But since these celebrations were only occasional, people still went back to their farms and come back for the next liturgical season – making the Philippine version of reducción project quite unique with the existence of cabecera-visita complex.

The "cabecera" was the center (most often in the lowlands) where the parish priest resided; the "visitas" were small chapels at the outskirts which he would visit occasionally most often during the annual patronal feasts. This familiar parish structure is still recognizable in our times. How successful was this project? The historian John Leddy Phelan comments: “The results certainly were not as sweeping as the missionaries wanted, but pre-conquest decentralization was sufficiently reduced so that Filipinos were brought into some social contact with Hispanic culture” and the Christian faith.

Another missionary space reconfiguration applied in the Philippines is the distribution of the dispersed islands and socio-linguistic groups to the care of different religious congregations. Earlier in the Spanish era, missions had to be abandoned due to obvious difficulties – dispersed population, shortage of church personnel and people’s diverse languages.

For a more strategic evangelization process, each of the four original missionary groups divided the reachable space among themselves. The central Tagalog region was shared by all groups but the larger area went mainly to Augustinians and Franciscans who arrived in these places earlier. The Jesuits got a smaller part while the Dominicans took care of the Chinese in Parian. Outside of Manila, the Augustinians took Pampanga and Ilokos; the Franciscans went to Bikol; the Dominicans took care of Pangasinan and Cagayan Valley; the Jesuits and the Augustinians divided the Bisayan islands among themselves. The Jesuits also went to Mindanao and remained the only group who worked there until the coming of the Recollects. The Augustinian Recollects who only came in 1606 got some few parishes scattered all over the islands but took over the Jesuit areas during the Jesuit expulsion.

This ethno-linguistic distribution of missionary groups was also practical as it facilitated their learning of distinct languages since the evangelization process was to be done in the native tongues. The friars learned local languages and were the first to write grammars and dictionaries, printed catechisms, sermons and confessionarios.

"Doctrina Christiana": Education in the Faith

The catechetical material "Doctrina Christiana" (1593) written by Fray Juan de Plasencia was the first book printed in the Philippines in both Spanish and Tagalog languages. It is a catechetical pamphlet which contains the basic prayers (the Our Father, Hail Mary, Creed and Salve Regina); the articles of faith, seven sacraments, seven capital sins, Ten Commandments, five commandments of the Church, and the acts of general confession.

Despite the long literary history in the Philippines (e.g., the baybayin script has been in use long before the coming of the Spaniards), the Doctrina was not meant for general distribution due to the high cost of printing materials. It mainly served as a catechetical guide for parish priests.

Catechetical classes were mainly oral. Chronicles narrate how, after the Sunday masses, the children are made to recite the contents of the Doctrina in the church. Creative adaptations followed. The Jesuits, for instance, translated it into Bisayan verses adapted to the local traditional chants for planting and rowing. But since Filipinos learned the doctrines in recitative parrot-like manner, many missionaries also doubt the depth of the believers’ comprehension of the tenets of the faith.

It is in this context that the schools became necessary. Another Jesuit church historian, John Schumacher, writes: “The missionaries realized the difficulties of securing great depth in understanding among the older people and often had to content themselves with merely a basic knowledge of Christian teachings and the memorization of fundamental prayers. But the younger generation could not only be thoroughly grounded in the faith from their childhood, but the work of the schools with them also served to attract and teach their elders. Though the schools seem to have been an ordinary adjunct of the parishes, in the large towns the so-called 'seminario de Indios', or boarding schools, were set up for the boys from neighboring districts, where they lived together and received a thorough foundation in Christian life and doctrine.”

Like their European medieval counterparts, boarding schools in the Philippines not only taught the Catholic faith but also reading, writing, music and other arts. And like the medieval boarding schools, they were also connected to a "convento" – a word which originally meant a monastery since the first Spanish parish priests mostly belonged to monastic religious orders. Thus, “even if occupied by only one priest, and even if not belonging to a friar order”, all parish houses and rectories are also called conventos even to this day.


Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, CM
St. Vincent School of Theology
Adamson University

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For the full article, click this link: D. F. Pilario, "Revisiting Evangelization Work in Colonial Philippines: The Ambivalence of Missionary Methods," 19-38.