FFE Magazine

PH History Today: Filipinos take over the Church

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has been central to some of the biggest issues that concern Filipino families today. For example, the power of the church to stop the passage of a law has been called into question during the heat of the Reproductive Health Bill debate a year ago. Some of us said it was high time the Filipino Catholic church adopted a progressive outlook since we needed updated policies that will give us a greater power to choose.


Cultural activist Carlos Celdran protests against church opposition to RH bill

Some of us think that our local church is restrictive of changes. But many years ago, it was the other way around: it was the Filipino priests who tried to push for reforms, especially when it came to the authority of the Spanish-run church. In fact, it was through the martyrdom of the three Filipino priests Mariano Gómez, José Apolonio Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora that the Propaganda Movement (led by Jose Rizal) became more confident in their calls for a change in the way Filipinos were treated under Spanish rule.


But what exactly did the Filipino priests face during that early part of the Spanish colonisation period? The date we are looking at is 9 November 1774 – the day when Filipino priests were given power over Spanish priests in the Philippines.


But before that, let’s take a look at some reasons why the Filipino priests were recognised in the first place. If you were a king who wanted to rule over a piece of land, wasn’t it obvious to trust your men first? So why did Spain give power to Filipino priests over Spanish priests?


This and other questions will be answered here. Sit tight, and tarry for a while…


Friarocracy: the rise of the friars


When we see the word ‘friar,’ most of us will immediately think of the father Damaso in Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere: the stout, intimidating, greedy Fransiscan friar who stopped at nothing to destroy Crisostomo Ibarra’s chance at happiness. Father Damaso was a constant presence in parties – he showed up (sometimes uninvited) not just to remain visible but to gorge on the delicacies of the feasts. But in real life, the friars of religious orders had more than just an appetite for food – they had a great hunger for influence.

Friars of the Augustinian Order

Friars of the Augustinian Order

All around the Philippines, friars from religious orders maintained control over their turf. They held power over education, tax, peace and order and the selection of local officers. They also reported on villagers and used the confession box as a way to spy on the locals. Because they had access to secrets and had influence among the Spanish authorities they were able to manipulate the rules – they excommunicated those they didn’t like and pressured the officials to their advantage.


According to an earlier Vatican policy, religious orders in countries converted to Christianity had to turn over their parishes to indigenous (secular) priests. By then, a handful of Filipinos have already been welcomed into priesthood and served as the friars’ assistants in the parish. There was no excuse not to turn over the parishes to Filipinos because there were already trained priests who were ready to manage the parishes without the friars.


But the friars naturally didn’t want this as they would lose the power they enjoyed over the helpless Filipinos. So what did they do to ensure that they held power over the parishes? They discriminated against Filipinos, calling them savages, unfit for the position and attacking their skin colour and lack education.


Friars of the Dominican Order

Friars of the Dominican Order


The friars of the religious orders also resisted another earlier Vatican policy: the visitation of bishops to check up on their parishes. There are things the friars did that they didn’t want bishops to know (if you want to know what these are, I suggest a review of Jose Rizal’s masterpieces Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo!). But the bishops insisted, and the deciding factor was when Archbishop Basilio Santa Justa finally sided with the bishops.


9 November 1774


By a royal decree and following the Vatican policy on turning over parishes to the natives, all parishes in the Philippines were officially declared secularised. This means that the friars of the religious orders had to give up their parishes to Filipino priests. The tables didn’t turn so quickly, however, because the friars did not give up so easily.


A year later, in 1870, only 181 out of the almost 800 parishes in the Philippines were handed over to the Filipinos. Since the Spanish government was also more focused on the galleon trade, they didn’t pay attention to how the religious orders ruled the land. The friars often did not follow their own teachings, and got tangled with money and murder.




It was not until after Spain left and America introduced changes to the countryside that Filipino priests finally held a sure footing over the parishes and Catholicism in the country. By mid-20th century, Filipino priests were slowly becoming an institution in the country. 1946 marked the year the CBCP was incorporated with the purpose of unifying Filipino Catholics under Filipino bishops. In 1949, most reverend Gabriel Martelino Reyes became the first Filipino to head the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Manila. By 1953, Rufino Jiao Santos started the line of Filipino priests to reach Cardinal status.

Cardinal Rufino Jiao Santos

Cardinal Rufino Jiao Santos


The 9 November decree marked a great change in the way Filipino priests viewed their position in the country. Despite being ignored by the friars that time, the decree empowered Filipino priests — it allowed them to make a stand and to finally be recognised not only as leaders in the community but as authorities in Christian scholarship.


9 November was the beginning of reform in the role of the church in the Philippines. Today, the CBCP, which acts as the speaker of the local Catholic church’s sentiments and beliefs, is simply carrying out its job of ensuring that the Philippine consciousness remains dutifully Christian. While many of us may not agree with their statement, they are entitled to their own opinion over the biggest issues that hound us today.


We may find them our greatest allies or bitterest foes in certain issues. Either way, we can be sure that they will fight for what they think is right according to the Bible, just as they have fought for hundreds of years in the history of the Philippines.

The Manila Cathedral post-World War II was reconstructed by Cardinal Santos. Among his other distinctions are the reconstruction of St. Paul Hospital (now Cardinal Santos Medical Centre) and the founding of the charity organisation Caritas Manila.

The Manila Cathedral post-World War II was reconstructed by Cardinal Santos. Among his other distinctions are the reconstruction of St. Paul Hospital (now Cardinal Santos Medical Centre) and the founding of the charity organisation Caritas Manila.



That’s it for today’s history! I’m sure the next time you attend Sunday mass, you’ll see your priest differently. More than just a crusader of the faith, priests have become a champion of history and will continue to be so. Has any priest influenced or changed your life? Share your experiences by leaving a comment below!







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