By Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, CM

Conversions and the Sacraments

Conversion to the new faith was not a spontaneous response to the foreign missionaries’ incursion into the indigenous population. Distrust, violent resistance and indifference characterize these initial encounters. Missionaries often discover their huts burned, their belongings stolen or the source of their drinking water poisoned. Thus, they did not forcibly impose the faith upon the indigenous people. They resorted to more creative strategies other than coercion and violence in order to attract people to the faith.

For instance, baptism was projected not only as purging the soul of its sin but also healing the body of its ailments. Chronicles in fact narrated of miraculous healings brought about by the baptismal waters. Since healing is always a fundamental need, people started to request for baptism. They also asked from parents and elders that their children be entrusted to their care. The school became a central tool for catechetical classes. Once the children were indoctrinated, the chieftains and elders also became curious and were persuaded. “With the conversion of the leaders of the community, the baptism of their followers came as a matter of course.”

Though there were instances when baptism was hastily celebrated with little preparation, most missionaries were careful in administering the sacrament and, in some cases, even postponed them. One example is this standard policy for Jesuit missions: “Let there not be so much concern for the number of baptisms as for their being well-prepared, and for the newly baptized living like Christians. Even though they are few, they should be good examples in their villages.” This makes post-baptismal catechesis and ongoing education in the faith very important. The catechetical recitation of the Doctrina in the cabecera on Sundays helped; so with the boarding school training for the younger converts.

There were many cultural obstacles to receive the sacraments – polygamy, divorce, usury, slavery, sexual practices, drunkenness, etc. – customs traditionally practiced by pre-conquest Filipinos. Missionaries were careful not to admit to baptism those who have not fully imbibed the tenets of Christian faith and morals.

This policy was found among the Dominicans: “It would have been a bad idea to baptize any while they were still in this doubt and danger of leaving the newly baptized without a teacher in the midst of so many pagans. For it was morally certain that they would soon return to their diabolical [sic] rites if they left them alone, not only because of the pressure which the other pagans would put on them, but also because of the weakness of those recently born in the faith and their little spiritual and natural energy. For they were all corrupted by with their many evil customs with which they have been born and lived all their life.”

If these obstacles were present for baptism, it was also true for the sacraments of marriage and penance. It was an uphill climb to convince the population to give in to the demands of the new Catholic morality, let alone live by them. In general, some parts of the population were converted; the majority remained in their traditional ways.

John Leddy Phelan has this conclusion: “As the 17th century wore on, the inadequacies of the missionary effort became increasingly apparent. Three sacraments – confirmation, extreme unction and holy orders – were of slight importance in the spiritual life of the Filipinos. In the case of penance and the Eucharist only the minimum requirements established by the Church were met… Yet the Filipinos were Christianized in the face of severe handicaps of a shortage of priests and a dispersed population speaking a bewildering variety of languages.”

Inculturation and Integral Evangelization

Inculturation and integral evangelization are post-Vatican II words. Yet reading the accounts of Spanish chroniclers and missionaries, we can glean some heroic efforts along these contemporary evangelization ideals.

First, there was the decision to use the native languages in order to spread the faith. The "Doctrina Christina" was trilingual – Spanish, Romanized Tagalog and Tagalog in baybayin scripts. Theological categories were also rendered in local languages except those which have no equivalents or those which caused confusion – Dios, Espiritu Santo, sacramento, etc. The missionaries became the first masters of local languages producing dictionaries, grammars and religious books.

Second, substitution with and accommodation to the local culture proved effective for the understanding of the faith. Thus, people came to consider the holy water as substitute to the shamans’ materials for healing; the cross was sent to be touched to the patients’ body to be cured; some old practices as ritual dancing were retained but replaced with a new object of veneration like the Santo Niño (Christ child); some indigenous structures were also adapted in the parish level, e.g., the local chief was appointed to be the parish fiscal, and many others. In contemporary terms, inculturation was practiced not only in the level of thought and practices but also in the realm of structures.

Third, the missionaries did not only preach by word but also by action. They engaged themselves in building roads and bridges, the improvement of agriculture, and hospital work. One lay Franciscan lay brother, constructed the roads in Laguna “with his own hands, diverting waters, filling swamps, and making roads, some a half league, others a league in strength, carrying on his own shoulders the rocks and other materials with the help of some Indios.” Another famous Franciscan friar, Fray Juan de Clemente, dedicated himself to healing peoples’ diseases through indigenous herbs and constructed a hospital despite meagre material resources.

Fourth, the missionaries bravely fought against the conquistadores and defended the rights of the natives against slavery. In the forefront of this struggle was the Dominican Bishop Domingo de Salazar, the first bishop of Manila. The first Synod of Manila (1582-1586), which he himself presided upon his arrival, tackled the thorny issue of the rights of the Spanish Crown on a conquered people.

Finally, the witness of the life of many missionaries themselves persuaded the Filipinos on the sincerity of their purpose. While younger missionaries who can learn the languages did the preaching, the older friars merely accompanied them to far flung areas to do the other tasks, to which the lifestyle of the present clergy pale in comparison. Here is one account:

"At times they went from one village to another by sea in small boats, but frequently it was necessary to pass through swampy and muddy country, so that they considered it was better to go barefoot and bare-legged. On arriving the place they were going, soaking wet and covered with mud, immediately they began to hear confessions or baptize as the need might be. They asked for nothing more than rice boiled in water and occasionally some small fish, if perchance the Indios had such for their food. The floor of the house of the Indio was their bed, and their wet clothing their covering, without anything anymore. Thus they acted and continued to give the Indios to understand that all those trials they were undergoing had no other purpose than to gain their souls for God."

How effective were these methods to the program of Christianization of the Philippines? Phelan identifies three periods of the colonial evangelization project.

The first phase is the exploratory phase (1565-1578) where church personnel were few and many were still learning the language. The second phase (1578-1609) consists of the “golden years” of the evangelization process. With more missionaries coming from Spain, the apostolic endeavours progressed in zeal and enthusiasm. The third phase was set around the 17th century onwards when “the zeal of the first generation missionaries gave way to the spirit of apathy, routine and discouragement.”

It is difficult to generalize but the first missionary ideals of Domingo de Salazar to protect the natives from the exploitation by the encomenderos were sidelined; these abusive systems ironically became the prevalent practice of some individual friars and missionary communities that later led the Filipinos to rise against Spain.


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.