ROME – Right now all around the world – and I mean that literally – Filipinos are marking the 500th anniversary of the country’s evangelization. With reference to virtually anyplace else, I probably would say “Filipino Catholics,” but in this case the phrase is border-line redundant. Some 86 percent of a population of 180 million identifies as Catholic, and the rest are deeply shaped by Catholic culture, traditions and practices.
The first Catholic Mass and the first baptism in the Philippines took place in 1521, and the year-long celebration of those events formally began on April 4, Easter Sunday, and will end on April 22. Pope Francis got a jump on things by celebrating a special Mass for the 500th anniversary of the evangelization of the Philippines on March 14, which came six years after his own wildly successful trip to the country in 2015.
The Philippines in most respects are a raging Catholic success story, and a country absolutely vital to Catholic fortunes in the 21st century – probably more so, however much it may bruise American egos to hear it, than the United States.
Yet it’s also a country currently locked in a struggle for its soul, and it’s far from clear that the 500 years of Catholic formation in the Philippines currently being celebrated is destined to come out on top.
The Philippines is the third largest Catholic population in the world, after Brazil and Mexico, and the largest Catholic nation in which English is commonly spoken. In terms of levels of faith and practice, the Philippines is easily the most dynamic Catholic nation with a large population.
We’re talking about a place where shopping malls have chapels with well-attended Masses offered around the clock, where public office buildings feature crucifixes and statues of the Madonna, and where street signs in downtown Manila advise, “Caution: Masses and Processions Constantly in Progress.”
Moreover, there are at least 12 million Filipinos living in diaspora, and in many ways they’re the 21st century equivalent of the 19th century Irish – i.e., the engine driving Catholicism’s missionary train. From Australia to Italy, from the United States to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Filipinos today supply a strong share of missionary priests and the laity who make up the backbone of parishes.
Almost twenty years ago, I identified a list of four nations likely to have an outsize impact on the Catholic Church’s success or failure in the 21st century, dubbing them the “PINS” countries: The Philippines, Indonesia, Nigeria and South Korea. Right now, nothing that’s happened in the first quarter of the new century gives me any reason to question those picks.
Exactly what that impact may be in the case of the Philippines, however, is currently up for grabs in a virtually unprecedented way. We’re talking about a Church with a long history of social engagement, which inspired and directed the People Power revolution in 1986 that swept away the Marcos regime, and which still routinely tops polls of the most trusted institution in the county going away.
At the same time, however, the Philippines is currently governed by a strongman whose “shoot first” policies on crime have resulted in an historic boom in extra-judicial killings by police and security forces, as many as 30,000 or more according to some estimates. The government of President Rodrigo Duterte has attracted the near-uniform condemnation of human rights groups around the world, and, more significantly for our purposes, the almost compact criticism of the Filipino bishops.
Despite all that, Duterte still enjoys robust popular support, with one national poll taken earlier this month reporting a 65 percent approval rating. Of course, the vast majority of those Duterte enthusiasts are also practicing Catholics.
According to Father Gregory Ramon Gaston, rector of the Filipino College here in Rome, there may be a fairly natural explanation.
“People listen to the church, but they have needs and concrete situations,” Gaston said. “The bishops can speak in a generic way about the doctrine of the church and against violence, but then the people have their experience.”
“Some say, ‘It’s better to kill these guys because they have a bad influence on my kids,’” Gaston said. “Maybe their minor children are recruited to carry drugs on their bikes. That’s a very concrete angle of view, and it’s different from what the church is saying.”
Gaston spoke Tuesday in an online session with journalists organized by the communications faculty of the Opus Dei-sponsored University of Santa Croce in Rome.
Actually, Gaston was fairly optimistic that the church can turn things around. He described a situation in Manila in which a fairly gung-ho police unit has been persuaded by a non-violent anti-drug program sponsored by the church, which focuses on education, concrete assistance and creating a better social environment, and has decided to cooperate.
National elections are scheduled for the Philippines next year. Duterte is ineligible to stand for a second term, but at the moment his daughter Sara, who followed her father as the mayor of Davao City, is currently polling as the most popular potential successor. For good or ill, the outcome of the election will be seen as a referendum of the social muscle of Catholicism in the Philippines, making the next year or so a defining time.
Much rides on how the Filipino church navigates the next 12 months, and Catholics everywhere ought to feel a stake in the outcome.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.