A Pastoral Letter on the Fourth Centenary of the Archdioceses of Manila, Cebu, Caceres, Nueva Segovia


Beloved People of God:

This year 1995 will mark a preeminent historical event of the Church in the Philippines. Four hundred years ago, Pope Clement VIII in a papal brief dated 14 August 1595 approved the elevation of the diocese of Manila into an archbishopric with three suffragan dioceses, namely those of Cebu, Nueva Caceres and Nueva Segovia.

From these four ecclesiastical centers would radiate the redemptive message of the Gospel carried throughout the archipelago by a throng of tireless and courageous missionaries.

The four ecclesiastical jurisdictions covered among them the entire archipelago with the diocese of Cebu responsible for the most extensive territory which included the Visayas, Mindanao and the Marianas Islands. Next in coverage came the archdiocese of Manila which included Nueva Ecija, Zambales, Pampanga, the southern Tagalog provinces, the southern half of Tarlac and the islands of Mindoro and Marinduque. The diocese of Nueva Segovia, now centered in Vigan, Ilocos Sur, but originally in Lallo, Cagayan, had responsibility over Pangasinan, the Ilocos Norte and Sur including largely unexplored Mountain Province. The diocese of Nueva Caceres, named in memory of the Spanish city of Caceres, included the provinces of Quezon, Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Albay, Sorsogon and the islands of Catanduanes, Masbate, Burias, Ticao and some parts of Samar.

Permanent Presence of the Church

It was a time of severe challenge. The aggressive entry of a foreign culture was a threat to the fragile communities scattered along the river banks and valleys. Conquest and payment of tribute in the name of a faraway king was an assault against the autonomy of the barangays and the power of local datos. More significantly, the preaching of the radical message that there is only one true God wrought havoc on ancient beliefs regarding a multitude of diuatas and anitos.

In the midst of these uncertainties and confrontations, the Church, 74 years after Magellan cast anchor in Cebu and barely 24 years from the time Miguel López de Legaspi entered Manila, made a solemn decision to stabilize its presence in the Philippines. By establishing the archdiocese of Manila and its three related suffragan dioceses of Cebu, Nueva Caceres and Nueva Segovia, the Church was at the same time boldly defining the nature of its mission in the Islands.

It was to be a permanent decision – one which saw the country not as a mere entrepôt or stepping stone to the more exotic kingdoms of China and Japan – but as a main focus in itself of an all-out evangelizing enterprise. This action also gave notice to the conquistadores that the Church would stand by the natives and defend their rights and properties against abuses. It revealed a church which dared to confront with the Christian cross the conquering sword in defense of the conquered’s human rights.

In Defense of Human Rights

Here we recall that courageous defender of Filipinos, the Dominican, Fray Domingo de Salazar. A disciple of the founder of international law, Fr. Francisco de Vitoria, O.P. (1483-1546), and of the Apostle of the Indians, Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas, this first bishop of the diocese of Manila tirelessly demanded justice on behalf of the native population whose persons and properties were violated by slavery and exploitation.

Bishop Salazar’s first pastoral letter deserves to be partly quoted since it reveals the tenacity of the early Filipinos to hold on to their faith in spite of the scandalous transgressions of some of its foreign adherents. Dated 21 December 1581, the pastoral letter notes:

“… this is precisely what enhances God’s admirable power and brings into greater relief the tremendous resources of our holy faith, that men beaten in war, reduced by the ferocity of their conqueror to a miserable bondage, stripped of their wives, their children and all their worldly goods, should in spite of all this, accept the faith and desire to profess the law of that God from whose worshippers they have suffered so many and such great evils…”

Does not this observation, made at the dawn of our Christian history about Filipino behavior in the face of grievous deprivations remind us of the present-day Filipinos’ own tenacity to hold on to the treasure of the Faith in spite of modern temptations against it?

The establishment 400 years ago of this pioneer archbishopric of Manila and its three suffragan dioceses became the nucleus for the systematic mobilization of the Church’s spiritual resources. Henceforth, the Church set about resolutely to create the conditions necessary for Christianity to take root and to spread throughout the islands. Primary schools were set up in many parishes where the younger generation could be intensely grounded in their Faith. Charitable foundations to care for the sick were started. These were eventually to develop into today’s San Lazaro and San Juan de Dios hospitals. The first catechism, the Doctrina Cristiana, was translated into various Philippine languages. Sodalities and confraternities were introduced to orient the laity towards service of the needy. As intrepid missionaries penetrated into remote hinterlands they left behind visitas which paved the way for the emergence of new towns.

The Power of Christian Symbols

The physical presence of churches, convents, hospitals and schools generated new symbolic experiences for the recently baptized. That the church building dominated the center of the town’s layout became for them a daily reminder of what they were taught in catechism classes about the majestic supremacy of the one true God. That the liturgy of the church was expressed in the seasonal cycle of Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection, became for the new converts a formula of liberation from the fatalism and static universe of pagan beliefs. The sound of church bells at various hours was linked to attendance at Holy Mass or to the recitation of the Little Office of the Blessed Mother. The imagination of the new Christians was no longer cluttered with impersonal spirits and magical rites but was enriched by the epiphany of a new world where angels and saints stood radiant before the altar of the Lamb of God.

The Church of the 16th century was also one of the principal architects of an emerging Filipino civilization. A civilization requires a vision to illumine its journey through history. This vision the Church offered a dispersed people by uniting them under the aegis of One God, One Church, One Eternal Destiny. This vision the Church concretized through the central devotions of the four key ecclesiastical jurisdictions: the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady for Manila and Nueva Segovia; the patronage of St. John the Evangelist for Nueva Caceres and that of the Most Holy Name of Jesus for Cebu.

Creating a Christian Civilization

The civilizing work that emanated from Manila and its three suffragan dioceses introduced an era of creative activities especially on the part of religious missionaries. In Manila, the Jesuit Fr. Antonio Sedeño and the Dominican Fr. Alonso Jiménez erected solid churches of stone, showing Filipino workers how to quarry adobe and how to mix mortar. In the region covered by the diocese of Nueva Caceres, it was the Franciscan priest Fr. Jerónimo de Aguilar who first introduced western music to the people of Camarines. The first grammar and dictionary of the Ilocano language prevailing in the diocese of Nueva Segovia was prepared by Fray Pedro de la Cruz Ávila while the Augustinian priest Fr. Alonso Mentrida succeeded in analyzing the linguistic structure of Cebuano.

Through its attention to both the spiritual and temporal welfare of the native population, the Church enabled the early Filipinos to take the crucial leap of faith which disengaged them from the constraining and at times cruel customs of their original culture – ushering them into a new civilization of charity, justice and life.

True and beyond dispute, there were abuses of power both on the part of the civil authorities and of Church personalities as well, abuses which left unreformed became the object of a bloody revolution. A credible judgment of this violent period of our history has been rendered by Filipinos of that era who themselves were victims of Spanish oppression. In the decisive revolutions of the nineteenth century as well as in the earlier sporadic revolts, Filipino rebels who virtually killed all the Spanish civil authorities in regions they controlled, nevertheless largely spared their spiritual pastors.

This 400th anniversary is therefore an opportunity to thank two important actors of our first evangelization – the missionaries who left behind their European roots to challenge Filipinos to accept the Gospel, and the Filipinos who in response gave up the security of their ancients beliefs when they embraced the new faith. The person of our first Filipino canonized saint, Lorenzo Ruiz, is a proof of the blossoming of this maturing faith. Both deserve our gratitude, for together they handed on to us the priceless heritage of Christianity formed and sustained by the ardor of their fidelity and sacrifices.

The Church celebrates the encounter between the early Filipinos and missionaries with a sense of humility, because alongside its heroic accomplishments are lamentable acts that were culturally disruptive and destructive of human rights. Bearing truth in mind, we thank God for what was good while resolving to avoid today the errors of the past. We then celebrate this anniversary in a spirit of fraternal solidarity with all persons of goodwill who promote whatever is true and just for our people. Thus, those who do not share our faith need have no fear that a New Evangelization will revive the triumphalism and insensitivity.

The Challenge of the New Evangelization

Today, as we stand on the threshold of the Third Millennium with its unknown perils and unexplored horizons, we experience once more the fear and uncertainties of ancient navigators as their galleons braved uncharted oceans. We are challenged by the Pope to engage in a Second Evangelization to be shaped by new enthusiasm, new methods and new expressions. How fortunate we are that in this pastoral endeavor, we have before us not only the examples and the lessons drawn from the First Evangelization but also the institutions and structures they left behind, among the most influential being the diocesan network originally linked to the archdiocese of Manila. They were important then as structures for incorporating the Filipinos into God’s salvific plan. They are equally, if not more important now, in implementing the New Evangelization. Their numbers have grown: from the initial four dioceses of 1595 to the present 77 dioceses with their 2,192 parishes. The new dioceses have taken over church leadership previously exercised by the four parent dioceses in their respective regions. Yet, the continuing historical influence of these initial dioceses down to our times was evident during the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines where prominent roles were assigned to the Episcopal heads of Manila, Cebu, Nueva Caceres and Nueva Segovia.

We have seen how in the year 1595 the Church in the Philippines entered a new state of apostolic activity with the establishment of the four leading dioceses. Today we are heirs to the unfinished agenda of their evangelization. They envisioned as early as in the Manila synod of 1581, that Filipinos would have a government whose first duty is to administer justice and whose actuations would not contradict Gospel principles. Today this hope remains unfulfilled. Furthermore, the 1581 synod sought to promote among Filipinos a level of culture where personal behavior was to be marked by compassion and respect for the rights of others while the structures of society would facilitate the growth of Christian culture and institutions. Today our senseless violence and lack of kaayusan frustrate our attainment of cultural harmony and structural order.

The Instrumentality of PCP-II

These are the contemporary challenges to which all our dioceses gave their collective response when they forged the Acts and Decrees of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP-II). In this Council, the Church in the Philippines was motivated to grasp wholeheartedly all those means which would lead to the full flowering of the life of faith in Christ. Since this meant re-telling his story and following his way, the dioceses, both pastors and flock, committed themselves to be a Church of the Poor envisioned to bring forth a Community of Disciples of the Lord.

With the promulgation of the PCP-II decrees and the implementation of its National Pastoral Plan, the Church in the Philippines has the blueprint and the guidelines for a Renewed Integral Evangelization.

The essence of this is the evangelization of Filipino culture by a process of inculturation including a comprehensive purification and transformation of our people’s ethos so that Christ’s message might prevail and permeate their families, their professions, their institutions and structures. Only then will the Church in the Philippines possess a new prophetic voice and a new cultural alternative in the face of the dehumanizing forces of modern secularism. So monumental a task cannot be achieved by one or two dioceses alone. It calls for a unified effort of all dioceses and of all the agents of renewal who make up the Community of Disciples of the Lord.

New Apostolic Horizons

If “unity of all things under Christ” (Eph. 1:10) was the overarching theme of PCP-II, then, what better example can better inspire our people, plagued by entrenched social divisions and the remnants of ideological conflicts than the resolute leadership of all our dioceses working together to achieve the vision of PCP-II?

The history of four dioceses, this time joined by daughter-dioceses, is unfolding into a new phase whose dynamism the present Pope has indicated when he said, “There is no doubt about it: the Philippines has a special missionary vocation to proclaim the Good News, to carry the light of Christ to the nations.”

For four hundred years we have enjoyed the gifts bequeathed to us by the First Evangelization. Now, we are being challenged to go beyond our borders and to meet Jesus Christ in the midst of Asia’s multitudinous humanity. The fact that more than half of Catholics in Asia are Filipinos, and the presence of Filipino overseas workers all over Asia are only some of the signs confirming the words of the Holy Father.

The words of the Lord: “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations…” (Mt. 28:19) stir us to action. To become a truly missionary Church by the next millennium is the best mark of gratitude we can offer as we celebrate this 4th Centenary.

May our Mother Mary, whose spirit proclaims the greatness of the Lord and whom all generations of Filipinos throughout these 400 years have proclaimed Blessed, come to the help of the servant Church of the Philippines as it commits itself to fulfill her Son’s challenge in the coming millennium.

For the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines:

Bishop of Butuan
President, CBCP
January 29, 1994
Tagaytay City