By Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, CM


In the spirit of celebrating the 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines, let me share an article I have written years ago. It might help put into frame what we celebrate today. Beyond the triumphalist readings, I will try to bring out the ambivalence of our celebrations. Beyond just being thankful for the grace of the Christian faith, the invitation is to look at the actual grounds we have trod and challenge ourselves to be more faithful to the man from Nazareth who started it all. This critical view is necessary to avoid romantizing Christianity's presence and, move us to tackle new and more difficult challenges in our times. This historical re-reading will be delivered in four parts to avoid reading fatigue.

The Philippines is said to have lived “300 years in a Catholic convent and 50 years in Hollywood.” The description refers to the two longest colonial rules in the Islands – first under the Spaniards (1521-1898) and second under the Americans (1898-1946). “El servicio de ambas Majestades” (the service of both Majesties) – a phrase present in many official documents – explains the relationship between Church and politics during the Spanish colonial regime in the Philippines.

The great Filipino Jesuit historian, Horacio de la Costa, writes:

"This is what claimed the entire allegiance of Spanish subjects everywhere, from the highest to the lowest, from Manila to Madrid: in the temporal order, the majesty of the King, and in the spiritual order, the majesty of God. The Church was primarily concerned, of course, with the service of God, the State with the service of the King; but it would be a great mistake to imagine this meant a division of labor or of powers. In the constitution of Spain and the Spanish empire each served both Majesties, God and King, Church and State might be distinct, but they were not divided. They were integral parts of one massive structure, which might be viewed either as a civilizing Church or a missionary State."

The evangelization project made possible by the Patronato Real was both missionary and civilizing. The friar’s task was both evangelical and political. At once, he was the empire’s civil servant and God’s missionary. But even at the demise of this religio-political structure in the post-Hispanic era, the same discourse can be found when the American Protestants came.

The American colonization program in the Philippines was both God’s business and good business. President William McKinley tried to impress on a group of American Methodist pastors how his decision to annex the Philippines was an inspiration of God’s spirit. This collusion of spiritual and imperial powers in these two colonial epochs in the Philippines has crucial consequences to the Church’s task of evangelization.

President McKinley narrates: "And one night late it came to me this way – I don’t know how but it came: (1) that we could not give them back to Spain – that would be cowardly and dishonourable; (2) that we could not turn them over to France or Germany – our commercial rivals in the Orient – that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) that we could not leave them to themselves – they were unfit for self-government, and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and (4) there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could for them, as our fellowmen and for whom Christ also died.”

I will only deal with the first – the missionary project under the Spanish regime. (I invite my Protestant and evangelical friends to also reflexively read their own histories.) I will attempt to examine and evaluate the methods of evangelization by the Spanish missionaries.

First, I will contextualize the colonial evangelization efforts through a specific politico-ecclesiastical arrangement called the "Patronato Real". Second, I will elaborate on some methods of spreading the Gospel employed by early Spanish missionaries. Finally, I will try to assess these methods based on their complicity with socio-political and economic powers of their times.

Against some ecclesiastical historians who easily glorify the Spanish missionary efforts, on the one hand, and the “anti-friar” literature that demonizes them, on the other, this article argues that the Spanish evangelization process was at best ambivalent. It eschews neither an easy veneration nor a generalized condemnation of these missionary efforts. Each event or practice needs to be considered through a critical reading of existing historical sources vis-à-vis other socio-political factors.

This essay realizes that understanding a historical event or assessing a historical project requires not only a comprehension of the conscious intentions of human agents vis-à-vis other social forces but also of its reception by others and its unintended consequences.

The "Patronato Real" and the Spanish Missions

The work of evangelization in the Philippines during the Spanish regime can be understood within the framework of Church-State relations called the Patronato Real de las Indias – “a series of agreements entered into by the Holy See and the Spanish monarchy... [later] developed by Spanish jurists and theologians into a body of law and of standard practices and procedures which remained in force until the dissolution of the Spanish empire in the late XVIII and XIX centuries.”

In short, Spain shall promote, maintain and defend the Catholic religion in all its colonies (that is, to support the whole work of evangelization) in exchange for being recognized by the Holy See as the “patron” of the Church of the Indies (that is, to possess “just title to the colonies it had conquered”).

This entitles the monarchy to certain rights in ecclesiastical administration. Some of these privileges are the following: (1) the right to assign religious congregation the territories for them to evangelize; (2) the privilege to approve missionaries to be sent or be retained in the colonies; (3) the right to nominate bishops with the understanding that these nominations were pro forma which the Holy See should automatically accept; (4) the right to approve the parish priests appointed to parishes by their local bishops; (5) the right to censor communication between the Holy See and the Church in the Indies; communications shall be coursed through the King’s Council to the Indies which has the power “to allow or not to allow such communications to be forwarded to those to whom they were addressed”; (6) the right to assign civil functions to parish priests, that is, compiling a tribute list, supervising elections or public works and others.

This arrangement consequently generates tension between the bishops/priests and the agents of the king in the colony.

One such area of tension is on ecclesiastical appointments made by bishops which governors-general would claim power to approve or revoke. For example, the governor Sebastián Hurtado de Corcuera (1634-1639) demanded that Fray Hernando Guerrero, the Archbishop of Manila, submit to this policy. When the latter refused, Corcuera ordered that Archbishop Guerrero be arrested. The soldiers came to implement the order but Guerrero prevented them to touch him by holding the monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament in it as his shield. The soldiers had to wait for hours until he became tired and had to let go of the monstrance. The Archbishop was later exiled to the island of Corregidor. But before leaving, he placed the whole city under an "interdict". This means that no Masses can be said, no other sacraments can be celebrated, no funerals can be done, until the interdict was lifted. The governor had to give in to the pressure from the people and released the Archbishop in less than a week’s time.

The tension did not only happen between church and government but also between politics and economy. A dramatic event that occurred in October of 1719 proved to be a culmination of the long tension between Governor Fernando de Bustamante (1717-1719) and the Manila merchants whom the former accused of graft and corruption. When these business people ran to the churches for sanctuary, Bustamante had the churchmen arrested and, in the end, also the old Archbishop Cuesta himself. Upon hearing the news, all people rose up in arms. As they stormed the palace, the governor did not relent. Instead, he had his soldiers – and himself – fire their artillery at them. But the people charged and killed him and his son. “Then, all that multitude with one voice raise a cry that was heard throughout the city: ‘The tyrant is dead! Long live the faith!’.”


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

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

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