The Fifth Centenary of Christianity in the Philippines
Upon his arrival, the Pope said: “My visit...comes as the Church in the Philippines is preparing to celebrate the fifth centenary of the first proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ on these shores.”
Obviously, he was referring to the first Christian mass celebrated on our shores, about which there had been an on-going debate as to venue. Limasawa or Butuan. The date: March 31, 1521, Easter Sunday was never put in question. Unless corrected, March 31, 2021 will mark the 500th anniversary of Christianity in the Philippines.
In May 1996, because of the near acrimony over who owns the parochial bragging rights and celebratory fame as to venue--between Southern Leyte to which Limasawa belongs and Agusan, where Masao district of Butuan is--the National Historical Institute (NHI) stepped in “to resolve a very sensitive historical issue facing our country and our people.” After almost two years, the NHI panel concluded that “…the first-ever Christian mass on Philippine soil on March 31, 1521 was celebrated in the island of Limasawa…..” The panel claimed that “a rigorous evaluative analysis and appraisal of primary sources,” utilized “the most complete and reliable account of the Magellan expedition” as chronicled by Antonio de Pigafetta. The panel further referred to Pigafetta’s memoirs as “the only credible primary source that yields the best evidence of the celebration of the first Christian Mass on Philippine spoil.”
It is very apparent to me that the NHI panel never read Pigafetta in its entirety and what they read, they misinterpreted thus compounding and perpetuating an error that has been in our history textbooks since the Philippine educational system started teaching Philippine history to our children.
That Pigafetta wrote: “a mass in Limasawa on that Easter Sunday,” is beyond question. There is, however, one inescapable and irrefutable fact: Pigafetta NEVER said that that Easter Mass in Limasawa was the “first.” Neither did any of the survivors of Magellan’s expedition. Maximillianus Transylvanus who interviewed Sebastian Elcano and other survivors of the galleon Victoria reported his findings to the Archbishop of Salzburg. (De Moluccis Insulis-1522) Mention of “divine worship according to Christian usage” is made only when the party was already in Cebu. Incidentally, the Transylvanus report, prepared in Valladolid, Spain antedates the publication in Rome of Pigafetta’s memoirs by about two years.
The original error was actually committed 142 years later. It was Francisco Colin, SJ in his “Labor Evangelica” (1663) where that mass in Limasawa was referred to as a “first.” Unfortunately, that was opinion and not fact. Other copycat historian-interpreters followed, notable among whom was the French travel writer Jean Mallat in his 1846 opus on the Philippines, entrenching the error further. It is evident that the error of the Colins, the Mallats and the NHI panelists can be traced to their being guided by preconceived conclusions and focusing exclusively on the Limasawa episode without referencing many “unrecorded” events and instances in other venues that can be irrefutably deduced by simply reading the totality of the memoirs. Hence there are, indeed, more recent historians who refer to the Limasawa event as the “the recorded first mass” or “it was the first time a Christian mass was recorded as having been performed in these islands.” (Drs. Rolando Borrinaga and Zonia M. Zaide.) An “unrecorded” first mass, of necessity, comes springing out into more credible contention.
Are we then going to celebrate the Fifth Centenary of the “first recorded” mass in the Philippines? Or decide, once and for all, where and when in reality, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the first “divine worship,” the first liturgical mass was actually celebrated albeit without benefit of recordation?
There is a law, Republic Act 2733, declaring a site in Limasawa as a National Shrine because it was there that “the First Mass in the Philippines was held.” It was enacted on June 19 1960 “without Executive approval.” President Diosdado Macapagal must have had his own doubts as he merely allowed the bill to lapse into law.
The debate concerning the “first” mass is actually an issue of chronology and not of geography! Establishing unimpeachable chronology defines the geography beyond argument. I aim to do this.
The Pigafetta memoirs recorded only five instances of when mass was said during the entire Magellan voyage. From San Lucar de Barrameda to landfall in what they called the islands of Saint Lazarus was a period of one year, six months and some weeks. Would it not be preposterous to conclude that no other masses were said, before Limasawa, simply because they were not mentioned or because Pigafetta failed to record a religious rite which, after all, occurs with regularity, normally uneventful, every Sunday?
Let us ever be mindful that the Magellan party sighted the uninhabited islet of Homonhon at dawn of a Saturday, March 16, 1521. (Feast of St. Lazarus) The following day, Sunday, they landed. There they found two springs of the clearest water thus calling Homomhon “Acquada da li buoni Segnalli.” (Watering place of good Signs). After months of floating in hopeful desolation on the bounding main of the Pacific, was not a liturgical celebration called for? Thanksgiving Mass? Pigafetta does not record it.
Before Limasawa, the Magellan party stayed in Homonhon a full eight days, the entire sojourn sandwiched between two Sundays! The second Sunday, March 24, was Palm Sunday. Pigafetta does not even mention this at all. Next entry in his journal: “a mass in Limasawa on that Easter Sunday,” March 31, 1521. Is Easter Sunday Mass ever celebrated without being preceded by Mass on a Palm Sunday?
A year earlier, when the Magellan party was resting in the port of San Julian somewhere along the Patagonian Straits (later to bear the name of Magellan) Palm Sunday fell on April 1, 1520. Pigafetta recorded in his memoirs that the Captain General (Magellan) on that day summoned all to go ashore to hear mass. On the other hand, Pigafetta does not mention mass being celebrated the following Sunday, April 8 1520, which is Easter Sunday. Is Palm Sunday mass celebrated without being followed by mass on Easter Sunday? [Argentina, to which San Julian belongs, also the native country of Pope Francis, does not claim April 1, 1520 – Palm Sunday as the day of the “first” Christian mass in those shores!]
There has been a failure of historiographic interpretation to the exclusion, neglect and abandonment of Homonhon in the southern tip of Samar Island as the earthly spot where the real first mass in the Philippines was indeed celebrated upon Magellan’s landfall. The first Sunday of Christianity in Las Islas Filipinas! It is in Homonhon where the “these shores” the Pope spoke of can be found. Shouldn’t the islet be the venue for the celebration of “the fifth centenary of the first proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ….?” It was in Homonhon where the “divine worship according to Christian usage,” “the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” in the Philippines was first celebrated.
With the Grace of God and the continued good health of His Holiness, Pope Francis, the Fifth Centenary of Christianity in the Philippines could occasion his second visit. It behooves the collective rectitude of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines and the leadership of Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle to resolve once and for all this historical inexactitude.
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