Christianity in the Philippines

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Christianity is the main religion in the Philippines, with about 93% of its population identifying themselves as Christians. The country ranked fifth among the countries in 2019 with the largest number of Christians across the globe.[1] It is also the third largest Catholic country in the world, next to Brazil and Mexico. The Philippines is also one of the only two predominantly Catholic countries in Asia, the other one being Timor-Leste.[2]

Roman Catholics constitutes the majority of the Christian population. The rest subscribe to other Christian denominations; namely Evangelical, Iglesia ni Cristo, Aglipayan, and other groups including other Protestant denominations (Baptist, Pentecostal, Anglican, Methodist, and Seventh-day Adventist) as well as Orthodox).[3]

Birth of Christianity

In 1521, the Portugese explorer and the captain of the fleet Armada de Molucca Ferdinand Magellan led an expedition to search for Spice Islands or Moluccas. It was supported by King Carlos I of Spain. After two years of sailing, they instead found an island in Central Visayas.[4]

Magellan and his troops discovered Homonhon island on 17 March 1521. The sovereign of the Philippines was non-existent at that time. The natives lived in a community called barangay, which consisted of a group of families and ruled by “datu” or the Hindu term for leaders, “rajah.”[5]

The early communities had their own language and shared their own beliefs and traditions. The prevailing main religions were animism or polytheism. While they did not have a place for worship, they believed that the spirits of deities exist in animals, plants, and other things found in nature. They also believed that some animals were holy, such as crocodiles, raven, and the legendary blue or yellow-colored bird that they called “Bathala.” They also used objects such as stones, wood, bone, crocodile tooth, and gold as an image of their ancestors. These were called anito.[6]

Before the Europeans arrived, the Islamic faith had already been thriving in the archipelago, brought about by the influence of Malays and Arabic traders. Some religions, such as Hinduism, had already existed as well.[7]

The First Mass

See also First Mass in the Philippines.

As devout Catholics, Magellan and his chronicler Antonio Pigafetta saw their expedition as an opportunity to disseminate Christian faith.[8] After meeting some of the island’s leaders who also became his allies, Magellan ordered his men to organize the place where the first mass would be held. On the last day of March, Father Pedro de Valderrama officiated the first mass in the Philippines on the shores of Mazaua, or Limasawa in Southern Leyte today. Rajah Kolambu and Rajah Siagu, the rulers of Mazaua and Butuan, participated in the mass. Magellan also ordered to plant a huge cross on top of a hill overlooking the sea.[9] [10]

After the mass, Magellan asked the rulers to suggest places where they can stop by and get food supply. The rulers then suggested Ceylon, Zubu, and Calaghan, emphasizing Zubu as being the largest and most common trading place nearby. The chieftains also offered help in navigating the seas to Zubu. The next day, Magellan and Rajah Kolambu left the island and set sail.[11]

Magellan and his troops arrived in Zubu, or currently the city of Cebu. There, he met Rajah Humabon, the ruler of the island. Magellan had established cordial relationship with the ruler when Magellan (or one of his men) cured Humabon’s ill grandchild. Rajah Humabon agreed to convert to Christianity, and was baptized with the name Carlos, after the king of Spain. His wife was also baptized with the name Juana, and was given an image of the child Jesus or Santo Niño.[12]

On 26 April 1521, Zula, one of the rulers of Mactan, asked one of his sons to offer two goats for Magellan. The local ruler promised to serve the King of Spain, but Lapulapu, another local chieftain, opposed it. Magellan sent his men to Mactan to attack Lapulapu and ignited the clash. The Battle of Mactan was fought on 27 April 1951, which ended in Magellan’s death. Some of his men escaped and returned to Spain.[13]

Magellan’s defeat did not halt the Spanish occupation in the Philippines and its intent to spread Christianity. On 13 February 1565, the Spanish conqueror Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived in the southern part of Samar. In mid-March, he set foot in Bohol, and met the local chieftain Sikatuna. Legazpi and Sikatuna performed Sandugo or blood compact, which represented the friendship of the natives and Spaniards. This marked the start of the 333 years of Spanish colonization in the Philippines, shaping it into becoming a Christian nation.[14]

Notable Filipino Christians

The Philippines is home to some of the most important Christians in history:

Pedro Calungsod, a Filipino saint.

Traditions and Beliefs

Religion greatly influences the way of life of many Filipinos. Many celebrations in the country are associated with Catholic faith, which include Christmas, Lent or Holy Week, All Souls’ Day, and local festivals to glorify saints and the Virgin Mary. Children and infants are also baptized to strengthen their faith.[15]


The Philippines is known for its long Christmas celebration. Colorful lanterns called Parol and Christmas lights and trees are mostly present at home and establishments. They also set up a Christmas tree and Belen. Other traditions associated with Christmas include Christmas carols and “aginaldo” or Christmas monetary gift. Many Filipinos also attend the devotional nine-day night masses or Misa de Gallo.[16][17] On the night before Christmas, Filipino families dine together in a tradition is called Noche Buena, which means “good night.”

Holy Week

Semana Santa or Holy Week is the second most important holiday season for Filipino Christians, which is observed a week before Easter Sunday. It is the main celebration during the Lent—or a devotional 40 days of fasting from Ash Wednesday to Black Saturday—to recollect the passion, death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Holy week starts on Palm Sunday. Churchgoers bring “palaspas” or woven palm leaves and have them blessed with holy water. During Holy Thursday, people go to church and watch Senakulo, or a play showing the trial, suffering, and death of Christ. Catholics also go to various churches, which is called Visita Iglesia. Some places are also popular for reenacting Christ’s Passion and crucifixion, such as San Fernando in Pampanga, Manila, Antipolo, and Marinduque. Some devotees are still practicing “Pabasa”, in which they sing “Pasyong Mahal”, narrating the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. On Easter Sunday, some locals witness the “Salubong”, a pre-dawn meeting of the statue of Mother Mary, dressed in black mourning dress, and Jesus Christ.[18][19] Some also pay a visit to Marinduque to see Moriones, in which the locals wear costumes of Roman soldiers.[20]

Major Festivals

Filipinos also celebrate vibrant festivals based on religion, which tie culture and faith. Some of these festivals are Sinulog Festival in Cebu, Ati-Atihan in Aklan, Dinagyang in Iloilo, and the nationwide celebration of Flores de Mayo or Santacruzan in May.[21]

Married couples also visit San Pascual Baylon Church in Obando, Bulacan on May 17 to 19 for Sayaw sa Obando. They dance as a form of prayer to Santa Clara to prevent and cure infertility, or to wish to conceive.[22]


  1. “Global Christianity – A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population,” Pew Research Center, 19 December 2011, Accessed 05 January 2021.
  2. Ray Cavanaugh. “Timor-Leste: A young nation with strong faith and heavy burdens,” The Catholic World Report, 24 April 2020, Accessed  05 January 2021.
  3. “Philippines,” Minority Rights Group International, Accessed 05 January 2021.
  4. “Fernão de Magalhães, d. 1521 (Ferdinand Magellan),” Princeton University Library, Accessed 05 January 2021.
  5. Barrows, David P. “A History of the Philippines,” American Book Company: 1905. Retrieved from Project Gutenberg. Accessed 06 January 2021.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Butterworth, Hezekiah. “The Story of Magellan and The Discovery of the Philippines,” Retrieved from Project Gutenberg, 21 October 2011. p. 122, Accessed 06 January 2021.
  9. Agoncillo, Teodoro A. “Introduction to Filipino History,” Radiant Star Pub.: 1974. p. 35,  Accessed 06 January 2021.
  10. Bernad, Miguel A. “Butuan or Limasawa: The Site of the First Mass in the Philippines: A Reexaminationof the Evidence,” Budhi, Vol. 5, No. 3 6.1 (2002), Accessed 06 January 2021.
  11. Butterworth, p. 126.
  12. Russell, Susan. “Christianity in the Philippines,” Northern Illinois University,  Accessed 06 January 2021.
  13. Butterworth, p. 139-143.
  14. Barrows, pp. 81-83.
  15. “Philippines,” Catholic and Cultures. Accessed January 7, 2021.
  16. McCarthy, Julie. “Love The Holidays? The Philippines Celebrates 4 Months Of Christmas Mania,” NPR, 24 December 2018.  Accessed 07 January 2021.
  17. Alivio, Cristina E. “Misa de Gallo delicacies” Sunstar, 16 December 2019, Accessed 07 January 2021.
  18. Billedo, Bernard. “Lent and Moriones,” Northern Illinois University. Accessed 08 January 2021.
  19. Villain, Tyne. “Here are the most common Holy Week traditions in the Philippines,”, 18 April 2019. Accessed 08 January 2021.
  20. “The Moriones,” California State University Northridge.,called%20the%20%22Moriones%20festival.%22. Accessed 08 January 2021.
  21. Paul A. Rodell. “Culture and Customs of the Philippines,” Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002, pp. 139-144.
  22. “Obando Feast of the Three Saints and Fertility Dance,” Catholics and Cultures. Accessed 08 January 2021.



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