“Gifted to Give”. This is the theme of celebration of the 500th Anniversary of the Arrival of Christianity in the Philippines. It is inspired by Jesus’ instruction to his apostles, when he sent them out on a mission: “You received this as a gift, so give it as gift.”(Mt 10:8b).
The gift of Christian faith was first unwrapped by the missionaries to the natives belonging to the Malay race when they reached their islands in the year 1521. The first bearers of gift was led by a Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, accompanied by the members of his crew in the 1521 expedition from Spain, who were all lay Christians, with the exception of one ordained priest in their company, Fr. Pedro de Valderrama, who was serving as their Chaplain. The islands they set foot in were named Islas Filipinas after King Philip of Spain.
The first gift witnessed by the natives was the celebration of the Holy Eucharist on Easter Sunday morning of March 31, 1521 in the island of Limasawa (now located in Southern Leyte). Pigafetta, the expedition chronicler, could not contain his own emotions as he narrated how awed he was about the kindness of these gentle souls to them. He described in great detail how they had gone out of their way to build them a platform made of bamboos on which they could celebrate their first Mass in the Philippines.
The second gift of faith was the Sacrament of Baptism celebrated in the big island of Cebu on the third Sunday of Easter, April 14, 1521. First baptisms were gladly received by the chieftain Rajah Humabon and his wife Humamay (given the Christian name, Juana).
And the third gift is the icon of the Holy Infant of Jesus (known as Santo Niño de Praga). Magellan gifted Reyna Juana the image of Santo Niño in behalf of Queen Isabella of Spain. And it was recounted that when Juana received the Santo Niño, she cuddled it and danced with joy in the rhythm of the waves (the original Sinulog dance).
In our History Class, we were taught that Magellan discovered the Philippines. Never have I thought that more important than the discovery of the Philippines was the Filipinos’ discovery of Jesus Christ through the Christian faith brought about by the Spanish missionaries.
Indeed, Christian faith, like life itself, is an undeserved gift. Thanks to the generosity of the early missionaries. Thanks for putting the Philippine Islands as the only Catholic Nation in the whole of Asia.
I can recall the message of Pope St John Paul II during his first visit to the Philippines in 1981:
“The Philippine nation is deserving of particular honour since, from the beginning of its Christianization, from the moment that Magellan planted the Cross in Cebu on April 15, 1521, all through the centuries, its people have remained true to the Christian faith.
The rich geographical and human diversity, the various cultural traditions, and the people’s spirit of joy and sharing, together with the fruits of the missionary efforts, have successfully blended and have shaped, through periods which were sometimes not devoid of shadows and weaknesses, a clear national identity that is unmistakably Filipino and truly Christian. The attachment to the Catholic faith has been tested under succeeding regimes of colonial control and foreign occupation, but fidelity to the faith and to the Church remained unshaken and grew even stronger and more mature.”
My dear Katolikong Pinoys sa Melbourne, let this year then be a year of looking back in history so that we can understand better who we are in the present as communities of disciples, and an opportunity also to look forward with the same missionary zeal that made it possible for us to receive the Christian faith. What we received without cost is also what we give without cost. Cardinal Tagle aptly expressed this when he stated, “The gift must continue being a gift. If it is kept for oneself, it ceases to be a gift. By God’s mysterious design, the gift of faith we have received is now being shared by the millions of Christian Filipino migrants in the different parts of the world.”
Mabuhay po tayong lahat!
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