by Robert Z. Cortes
What I’d call the unflappable and unflagging Christian faith of the Filipino people will always be a source of both fascination and joy to me. Perhaps that should be the case for all matters of faith, but still. All things considered, even among things mind-blowing, I think the miracle that is the Filipino faith is, quite simply, over the top.
Filipino Faith: Objectively Awe-inspiring
Now don’t get me wrong. Despite my nouns and adjectives, I say the above not for purely emotional reasons. There are quite a number of pretty objective bases.
For starters, there’s geography. “Catholic countries” – those whose majority population religiously identify as Catholics – are usually clumped in groups. Think Europe, Africa, and the Americas. On the contrary, the Philippines was the only Catholic nation in the Asian region for more that 400 years until East Timor became majority Catholic, sometime after Indonesia invaded it in 1975 (Brown & Chambon, 2022). And that “neighbor” is 2,612 km away.
Then, there’s demography. While the Philippines ranks 3rd among the most populous Catholic countries, next only to Brazil and Mexico, it’s way ahead of these two land giants in terms of number of Catholics per area of land. As well, with “more than 1.6 million baptisms of children under the age of 7 at the end of 2019,” it held the world record of “most baptisms of young children” at least for that year (CBCP News, 2021). With an ecologically-friendly total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.77 births per woman – vs. Brazil’s 1.75 and Mexico’s 1.73, both below replacement level (Central Intelligence Agency, 2023) – the country has a good potential of holding this record for quite a while. This may explain why, in the latest census, Filipino Catholics “rose by around five million to over 85 million people” (Gregorio, 2023).
Lastly, there’s history. The Philippines has held on to its Catholic faith for the last 500 years. Early this year, I went to the first post-pandemic Sinulog Festival in Cebu, the year-late celebration of the 500th Anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines. After nearly 502 years, a strong Filipino Catholic piety was as palpable as ever. The novena and procession, thickly attended and followed with fervor by Filipinos of all sorts, said it all. Rich and poor; city and rural folk; men, women, and everyone else in between; members of all the branches of military and government; name it, they were all there shouting and praying in faith, Pit Senyor!
… But Far from Perfect
To be sure, not everything is rosy with the state of Philippine Catholicism. For instance, for quite some time now since 1991, church attendance has been in decline (Moss, 2022; Torres, 2017), and “the Church’s traditional teachings may now be falling on less-than-enthusiastic ears” (Cortes, 2023). Moreover, and perhaps just as well, allegations and exposés of clerical sexual abused have come out in recent years (Ang, 2017; Mahtani & Cabato, 2020). There is much to do in terms of Filipino Catholics being consistent with their faith in public life, in attitudes to the poor, and in authentic evangelizing (Calleja, 2021). There’s no denying all those; one shouldn’t even try. Nevertheless, to claim – as one columnist recently did – that (italics are mine) “religion is now on a steep decline, especially Catholicism” and declare that “a watershed has occurred in my generation” (Tiglao, 2023) may be to underestimate just a wee bit the resilience of Filipino Catholic faith.
I couldn’t help but sense a tone of triumphalism and giddiness in those lines – written as they were for the newspaper’s Good Friday edition – and they sounded as if the author was only too eager to hammer, as it were, his own nails unto the wrists of the flagellant kristos, who on that day would be reliving Christ’s Passion with their own crosses. I plead guilty to the patent humor, even flippancy, of the imageries but they brought in more serious images of atheists down the history of modernity who would have made their own, maybe too literally and out of context, the famous quote by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1887), “Gott ist tot” (God is dead).
For our local columnist to live his dream, though, he may just need so many more nails. Since on the very Good Friday that his column appeared, the mayor of one town in Quezon province had planned “to gather 800 flagellants… double their 2021 record of 400 penitents” (De Galicia, 2023). In the end, the town managed to break their own record, but failed their actual goal since only “more than 500 of the town’s residents” showed up. The mayor is unbowed, however, and will try again next year (Mallari, 2023).
Now that sort of Catholicism is surely imperfect and perfectible, but it is nevertheless a strong argument against its “steep decline.” Given all the above, I guess the breaking news is that it’s been more than 130 years since Nietzsche declared the death of God, and it looks like God is still quite alive and kicking.
It’s All Over
To be honest, I did not need to rely on the news to tell me that. That’s because it’s exactly what I’ve been seeing with my own eyes for the last three years during Holy Week, including even before COVID-19 was declared over. This year, I again witnessed, to my joy, that the Catholic faith and God were very much alive – this and for the first time, in Palawan! For me the discovery was made special by the fact that the province is celebrating the 400th anniversary of what the locals would call Palawan Cristianismo.
On Holy Thursday, for example, the large barrio church where I attended the Mass of the Lord’s Supper was bursting at the seams. Popular piety was vibrant: lots of families and large groups of young people doing the Visita Iglesia, i.e., the traditional visits to seven churches; the recitation of the Pasyon in many of these churches I visited; stalls for each Station of the Cross in each of the several barrios I passed from one church to the next.
On Good Friday, the place where I stayed was abuzz with activities as early as 4 a.m. The parish had two sets of Way of the Cross. One was called was “penitential” because one had to wake up really early in the morning to make it and then walk two kilometers around the whole barangay to complete it. The other one was done in the afternoon inside the church. There were the traditional Siete Palabras, the newer Devotion to the Divine Mercy, and the usual Veneration of Cross and Holy Communion service. The day closed with the procession of the Santo Entierro which ended after 8 p.m. Attendance was huge in all activities.
So, given the vibrancy of the town’s popular piety in the closing days of Holy Week, by the time of the Easter Vigil in the evening of Holy Saturday or of the dawn or morning masses of Easter Sunday, how can one deny the authenticity of the people’s words as they exclaim, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it”?
The reason for their joy is an encounter with a God who has become part of their daily lives through their Catholic faith. The understanding of this God may perhaps be imperfect, but the encounter is real.
And lest we are deluded to believe that Catholicism in the Philippines, outside of this relatively rural context, is in an inexorable decline ending in sure extinction, a quick look at traffic rerouting schemes in the major cities of the country, from Luzon to Mindanao, including Metro Manila, to accommodate “several processions” (Sarao, 2023), is enough to disabuse anyone with an open mind of the myth that the demise of faith in the Philippines is at hand and unavoidable.
In the Space of Actionable Perfectibility
My purpose for affirming all the above is not to give those of us who try our best to live God’s Law reasons to be smug and presumptuous. The goal, in fact, is the opposite: to encourage everyone to walk in humility and hope. The triumphalism that we glean in our critics’ voice cannot and should not be found in us. And true humility is still quite possible – no, rather, it is only possible – if we begin our efforts with the truth of where the Catholic faith is.
And where, really, is the Catholic faith in the Philippines? Or, for that matter, Catholicism and the Catholic Church, assuming that, for the sake of simplicity, the use of any of these three terms makes no substantial difference?
The simple answer is this: since the Church is neither dead nor moribund, but is hardly perfect either, then it should be somewhere in between. It’s what I would call the “space of actionable perfectibility.” It’s that spectrum between death and perfection within which personal agency is both relevant and necessary. As to where exactly the Church is in that space doesn’t matter. We know it is the best place that we can possibly be. Why is that?
First, because it is the place where God has allowed us to be in this moment of history – and God always knows best.
Second, because that specific space somewhere between nothingness and fullness is the only place in this good earth that we can fight both despair and vanity, deadly enemies to our faith, and hope to succeed.
Third and last, because it is only there where it becomes clear that, if our personal Catholic faith were to remain alive and the institutional Catholic Church where we belong relevant in the world, then you and I must take full personal responsibility for living the authentic Christian life that we are called to live.
In other words, in this Church – beautiful, as it comes from the hand of God, yet wounded and broken by our human sins and frailties – here and now, you and I must decide and work to have a genuine personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Not an anonymous human face looking at a generic, theoretical Jesus. It’s my face looking into Christ’s – real to me – and so, as St. John Cardinal Newman would say, cor ad cor loquitur (heart speaks to heart).
Consequently, the proper answer to the false taunts of a madding crowd on the one hand proclaiming that God is dead and, on the other, the realization of the truth of God’s goodness and mercy is neither fear or anger to the former nor overbearing defiance to the latter. It is, rather, a firmer commitment to know and experience, on a more personal level, the unflappable and unflagging love of Jesus Christ.
It is only this Love that can burn the dross and purify the imperfections of our personal faith and of the institutional Church to make us the effective instruments that God wants us to be. And this is exactly the story of the first Easter.
Evangelizing Lessons from the First Easter
It was in that space of her failing, yet still defiantly flickering faith where Mary Magdalene met Jesus again on that early Easter morning. But it was not just any meeting anymore because now it was with the Risen One. The encounter was also much deeper because her grief had exhumed a greater love from the depths of her soul. What was an otherwise customary call, “Mary,” now elicited an overjoyed response, “Rabbouni!” It was the encounter with the Risen Christ in her misery that transformed the Magdalene disciple into Mary, Apostolorum Apostola, the Apostle of the Apostles (Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, 2016).
It was in that space of their dying yet still struggling hope that Cleopas and his companion encountered Christ on the road to Emmaus and in the breaking of the bread. Many scripture scholars assert that Cleopas’s unnamed companion was his wife, and that the Eucharistic celebration happened in their home (Jones, 2017). If this is true – it makes sense, anyway – then it is a beautiful and powerful truth.
Why? Because this event affirms the imagery of the family as the domestic church. It was in the intimacy of this domestic church that this man and this woman, as husband and wife, had their closest encounter with Christ. It was in their home where they poured out their hearts to this Person whom they had not yet fully recognized, but nevertheless received into their domestic hearth and afterwards into their hearts.
When they finally realized that it was Jesus, even though He had already disappeared, they rejoiced and hastened to announce the Good News to the Apostles. This married couple, would confirm, in their joy, the Resurrection of Christ to the bishops of the nascent Church.
From the preceding paragraphs we glean several lessons.
First, it is within the very imperfection of our Church and our faith that Christ comes to meet us. As long as we have not capitulated to foolish despair, it is as if these very imperfections were needed for our vision not to be clouded by our conceited self-sufficiency and to actually recognize our need for Him. This lesson, is in fact, an echo of the very words recited in the Exultet during the Easter Vigil, “O happy fault that earned (for us) so great, so glorious a Redeemer.”
And Christ does want to meet us. This is the second lesson. He desires a personal friendship with every single person no matter their condition: woman, man, married, single, priest, and laity. He knows – and we do, too – just how much we need this friendship because this is the very purpose of our life and meaning of perfect happiness. The Risen, Living Christ with Whom one has a unique, unrepeatable friendship is the real Good News.
This very personal Good News – one’s own, in fact – means one’s very life. Consequently, it’s a story that one can very easily, and even willingly, tell all whose lives one touches: as much with one’s actions as with one’s words. This suggests, ironically (and this is the third lesson), that this personal story cannot and should not be kept but shared. Of course, self-centered stories are often odious. However, when “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20), one’s personal life story becomes Other-centered, is transmitted as such, and ultimately acquires a power that changes the lives of others. One’s life and story are now witness.
That story transforms because it is God, in fact, who communicates Himself. It’s really God who does the heavy lifting, and all we need to do is contribute to this “divine communication” the best we can. We get the clue how from Pope Francis (2019), who reminds us that “to communicate is precisely to receive from God’s Being and to have the same attitude; unable to remain alone… to communicate what I have and I think to be true, just, good and beautiful.”
If one lives all that, one lives a life where losing is not a thing. God, we are told by a modern saint, never loses battles (Escrivá, 1987). The inevitable result is that a very natural joy pervades the witness. Then the very joy itself becomes the most convincing witness.
It’s that unflappable and unflagging Christian joy.
Robert Z. Cortes is an assistant professor in the School of Communication of the University of Asia and the Pacific. He finished his MA in Education Leadership in Columbia University (New York, U.S.A.) and his PhD in Social Communication at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce (Rome, Italy) in 2019. He obtained a post-graduate degree in Ancient Philology from Polis The Jerusalem Institute of Languages and the Humanities (Israel) in 2021. His main areas of study and teaching include: communication and media ethics; the connections among media, culture, and society; and the teaching and applications of languages.
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