By Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, CM

Translation, Conversion and Reducción

Instead of teaching natives the Spanish language, the first missionaries who were few in number decided to use the native languages in order to preach the Christian faith. Translation was the first act. The Spanish-based "Doctrina Christiana" was translated into Tagalog in its Romanized and baybayin scripts. Local terms had to be found to express theological categories. Creative adaptations of the tenets of faith, for instance, through songs and chants, made the learning and appreciation of doctrines easier and more effective. Through these, we appreciate the zeal and creativity of the first missionaries who became the first authorities of diverse local languages with their dictionaries and grammar books. Long before the word cultural adaptation and inculturation found itself into our sociological and theological vocabularies, the friars were already effectively doing it in the field.

But Vicente Rafael also alerts us to the semantic relationship between traducción (translation), conversión (conversion) and conquista (conquest). “To translate” is synonymous with “to convert”. Conquest means both an aggressive entry into another’s territory and winning over the other’s confidence and affection.

“Conversion [also] literally means the act of changing a thing into something else; in its more common usage, it denotes the act of bringing someone over to a religion or practice. Conversion, like conquest, can thus be a process of crossing over into the domain – territorial, emotional, religious or cultural – of someone else and claiming it as one’s own.”

Translation and conversion thus are ambivalent realities. On the one hand, they make the foreign Christian faith accessible to ordinary Filipinos and the local culture accessible to the foreign missionaries. It is through these acts that we receive the faith.

On the other hand, as we were converted, we were also “conquered”, as it were. Spain has converted our identities to serve its colonial interests. “For a conqueror consolidates his position over the people he has conquered to the degree that he persuades them to defer to his interests – converts them to the view that they serve their own interests when they serve someone else’s.” I do not yet refer to later colonial moves of translating or changing our family names - from Duhaylungsod or Dimagiba to Reyes, Cruz or Santos - to make them readable and palatable to the Spanish tongue.

What occurs in the semantic level becomes clearly visible in the socio-political sphere. Just as the Tagalog language needed to be translated and converted through the Castillan grammatical rules, the dispersed population and native bodies also needed to be “reduced” into the imperial grid so that it would be easier for the ruling body to subjugate.

On the one hand, the time-tested missionary strategy of the reducción adopted from the experience of the New World proved helpful for easier transmission of the Christian message. The few available missionaries necessitated such pastoral strategy. Moreover, to live away from the town – recounted one Spanish friar – generates “much spiritual and temporal damage” because in those dispersed places natives often live with “too much liberty of conscience.”

On the other hand, Rafael argues that this reconfiguration of space also made it easier for colonizers to convert them “into arbitrary elements that could be made to fit into divinely sanctioned order characterized by the hierarchization of all signs and things in the world”. The missionaries arrogated unto themselves the privilege and obligation to regulate “the placement, location, and movement of the converted populace with reference to the larger concerns of evangelization and colonial administration.”

In other words, just as translation converts and adjusts the local language into a foreign configuration of grammar, tenses and declensions making it ready for colonial consumption, so does the reduction of the population into town centers (cabeceras), "bajo de las campanas", prepares them for easier management and supervision by the ambassadors of God and the King.

Indoctrination and Resistance

Post-baptismal catechesis, reception of other sacraments, and liturgical celebrations were intended to inculcate into the minds and bodies of the natives the demands of the newly received Christian faith. Beyond baptism, the reception of other sacraments also provided real occasions to strengthen the living out of Christian life.

Since polygamy and divorce were rampant, matrimony would only be celebrated if the couples deny these practices and uphold the Christian ideal. Phelan thinks that the acceptance of matrimonial demands “represents one of the most enduring achievements of the Spanish religious.”

With the work of the missionaries, “a new standard of premarital and marital morality was set up. Like all such norms this one was not always observed, but it was a standard destined to exercise continuing influence through the coming centuries.”

Another occasion for the indoctrination process toward the new Christian morality was the sacrament of penance. Converts were enjoined to confess once a year. Confessionarios – detailed guides to the examination of conscience – were given to priests as he tried his best to elicit the ‘truth’ from the penitent through some sort of question-and-answer interrogation process. Once accustomed to the practice, Filipinos needed no prompting as they literally flocked to the confessionals with eagerness and enthusiasm sometimes to the point of begging the priest on their knees – as many missionaries attested.

But there is more to this eagerness and enthusiasm than what appears on surface. While some missionaries were happy about this “rush to the confessional”, others were more skeptical.

Murillo Velarde complained about the Filipino’s tendency toward “quibbling and contradictions [that] created labyrinths which confused even the most experienced confessors.” Instead of strictly following the confessionarios, the penitents turned this event into something else as they confessed not their own sins but the sins of their husbands or wives, their mothers-in-law or those whom they considered enemies. Does this mean that the natives did not have the capacity to understand the theological intentions of this sacrament? Or was it a different game altogether?

Vicente Rafael’s reflection might give us some hint to what really is happening. The Tagalog word for asking for forgiveness in confession is "tawad" which also means “to bargain, to haggle, and to use evasions (in Castillian 'regatear')". In other words, the practice of confession which was used by colonial authorities to control minds and bodies was also effectively employed by the natives to bargain with totalizing hegemonic power – the most accessible representative of whom is the parish priest.

Against the colonial intention of reducing bodies into imperial designs through confession, the natives “responded by performing token payments designed to appease the figure of authority and deflect the force of hierarchy... What emerged was a confession without ‘sin’, conversion in a state of distraction.”

In this reading, the truth of the practice contains a “surplus” that goes beyond the original intentions of its agents – both the confessor and the penitent, the colonizer and the colonized – and overflows toward its unintended social consequences within the highly hierarchical colonial contexts. In other words, the colonized maneuvers, negotiates, haggles (maybe unwittingly) with whatever power it can muster in front of a very powerful colonial master, thanks to the sacrament of "pagpapatawad".

As with confessions, so it was with other sacraments and religious devotions in times of colonial domination.

Another example is the recitation of the Pasyon (from the Passion of Jesus Christ) – a Tagalog extended verse form of salvation history from Genesis to Revelation chanted by people in their homes during the Holy Week.

On the one hand, this activity can be viewed as an attempt by the colonizers to form the colonized minds into submission in the emulation of Jesus’ resignation to suffering and death.

On the other hand, Reynaldo Ileto – another Filipino historian – thinks that the peoples’ chanting of the Pasyon had provided a narrative which served as a rallying symbol for their hopes and aspirations of liberation. Beyond the intentions of the colonizers, the Pasyon contains a double-truth which, to their surprise, was ingeniously and dexterously utilized by popular leaders to foster solidarity among the oppressed.

As these unlettered masses dutifully chanted the narrative of the suffering of Jesus during Holy Week to the pleasure of the missionaries, these popular revolutionaries were also given the language and vision to articulate their longings for an alternative world far from what the colonizers had ever imagined.


As conclusion to his celebrated book, the Jesuit historian, Miguel Bernad, writes: “[T]he achievement of Spain and of the missionaries was a substantial one. First of all, they made of these islands one nation, fusing the various regions and the innumerable barangays into one people sharing a common national identity and a common faith. Secondly, despite all the obstacles, natural and man-made, they succeeded in creating a Christian nation that eventually overthrew Spanish rule without rejecting the Christian faith. In the theological view of history, that is an achievement that could not have been accomplished without the abundant help of divine grace.”

However, another great Filipino historian, Renato Constantino argues differently. He writes: “the attitude of the natives to the Church in the course of its economic and political ascendancy changed from initial obedience due to awe and fear; to loyalty and subservience arising from acceptance of the Catholic religion and experience with the power of priests within the colonial hierarchy, but accompanied by personal resentments; to generalized and group hostility because of the common experience of economic exploitation by the friars; and finally, to the violently anti-friar sentiments of the masses during the Revolution... It is very clear that this transition in the realm of consciousness was a response to a material stimulus – that transformation of the Church from a colonial accessory to the principal apparatus of colonial appropriation and exploitation.”

These two conclusions are not without basis. One can summon historical events to prove one's point. But taken in isolation, each assertion sounds like a swift generalization that neglects other socio-historical details which do not fit one’s ideological straight-jacket, thus, also overlooking the double truth of practice.

It might be more helpful to heed a warning from another great historian, Horacio de la Costa: “It serves no useful purpose to conceal the fact that the record of the Church in the Philippines is a spotted one. It accomplished great things; it was also subject from time to time to great abuses.”


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

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

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4: