500 Years of Burdens and Gifts

“We can move on from the burdens of history and to use the gift of the indigenous wellspring to renew a universal and truly Filipino faith.”

In the mass celebrated in Rome by Pope Francis last Sunday, Cardinal Chito Tagle spoke eloquently about the coming of the Christian faith to our land as God’s gift. According to Tagle: “From 1521 to 2021, we see gift upon gift. We thank God for the bearers of the gift these 500 years: the pioneering missionaries, the religious congregations, the clergy, the grandmothers and grandfathers, the mothers and fathers, the teachers, the catechists, the parishes, the schools, the hospitals, the orphanages, the farmers, the laborers, the artists, and the poor whose wealth is Jesus.”

But has it all been gifts?

Last week, the University of the Philippines Department of Anthropology hosted a virtual forum, part of the National Historical Commission’s commemoration of the Philippine Quincentennial, entitled “Of Crosses and ‘Culture’: an Anthropological Look at 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines”.  I was invited to speak in one of the panels – Cross and Gavel: The Crosses and Crossings of Christianity and the Law in the Philippines. And for that, I chose to deliver a short presentation entitled “From Pope Alexander VI’s Inter Caetera (1493) to Pope Francis Fratelli Tutti (2021):  how the Catholic Church has influenced the rule of law and justice in the Philippines.”

My talk was a work in progress, based on preliminary research for a law journal article I am writing and a course outline I am working on for a subject on history and philosophy I have been asked to teach in San Carlos Seminary next semester. The focus of my research is on our dual experience of Christianity – the burdens that colonialism, and that includes Christianity, imposed on our people and the gifts of faith that are also the fruits of the encounter in 1521.

In reflecting on 500 years of the burdens and gifts of Christianity, I echo the reflections of my friend Brother Karl M. Gaspar, CSsR in his latest book Handumanan (Remembrance): Digging for the Indigenous Wellspring, published by Claretian Publications. As Professor Remmon Barbaza, my colleague in the Philosophy Department of Ateneo de Manila University, has pointed out that this book presents a gift – “in the form of a challenge—the challenge to remember.”

Agnes Miclat-Cacayan praises Gaspar’s book for its honesty, observing that “the price of colonial Christianity has been and continues to be steep not only in terms of its complicity with exploitative economic policies that continues to persist hundreds of years later, but for its effects on our indigenous soul.” She frames the book as a “compassionate and passionate petition” for the institutional Catholic church to “ask for forgiveness for what it did to indigenous culture.

It would be good actually to hear such an apology, at the very least an acknowledgement of the harm done.

The other book I will rely on is Owen J. Lynch’s Colonial Legacies in a Fragile Republic: Philippine Land Law and State Formation, published by the University of the Philippines College of Law. Lynch, who was my mentor, writes about the origins of our unjust legal regime that governs land ownership and utilization of natural resources. The book documents how colonial law systematically disposed Filipinos of their land rights even as it points to natural law concepts, embedded as early in papal bulls like that issued of Pope Alexander VI that justified colonialism and in the US Bill of Rights, that is helping us overturn the unjust system to favor today’s indigenous peoples.

In Pope Francis’ latest encyclical Fratelli Tutti, he observes how indigenous peoples are not opposed to progress, but they have a different notion of progress, one that is more humanistic than the modern culture of developed peoples. He adds: “Intolerance and lack of respect for indigenous popular cultures is a form of violence grounded in a cold and judgmental way of viewing them.”

I would have been remiss if I did not highlight the positive contribution of the recently deceased Fr. Joaquin Bernas SJ to Philippine law and to the building of our nation.

Last Sunday, Pope Francis thanked Filipinos: “You received the joy of the Gospel: the good news that God so loved us that he gave his Son for us. And this joy is evident in your people. We see it in your eyes, on your faces, in your songs and in your prayers. In the joy with which you bring your faith to other lands. I have often said that here in Rome Filipino women are “smugglers” of faith! Because wherever they go to work, they sow the faith. It is part of your genes, a blessed “infectiousness” that I urge you to preserve.”

Pope Francis urges us to keep bringing the faith, the good news we received 500 years ago, to others. It is a faith, even with the burdens that came with colonialism, that the gospel on the Fourth Sunday of Lent correctly describes as one that has produced many seeds.

The beauty of Brother Karl’s book is his insight about how we can move on from the burdens of history and to use the gift of the indigenous wellspring to renew a universal and truly Filipino faith. Thanks be to God for that!

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