Bishops across the Philippines opened the jubilee doors of their cathedrals on Easter Sunday, formally launching a yearlong celebration of the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity on their shores. While attendance was limited by pandemic protocols, the faithful throughout the country, including Knights of Columbus and their families, celebrated in their local parishes.
In proclaiming a jubilee, and the plenary indulgence attached to it, the Church in the Philippines is not just commemorating a moment in history — the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan and the baptism of a local king and his wife in 1521. The bishops hope that the quincentenary of those historic events will also be a springboard to a more vibrant future. Since 2013, they have led a program of faith formation and evangelization that culminates this year under the banner “Missio ad Gentes: Becoming Jesus’ Missionary Disciples.”
In a video message to the Filipino people, Pope Francis reflected on the jubilee year’s theme — “Gifted to Give” — by citing Jesus’ words: “Without cost you received; without cost you are to give” (Mt 10:8).
“These words are an invitation to thank God for all those who handed on the faith to you,” said the pope, who visited the Philippines in 2015. “I myself can testify that you know how to hand on the faith; it is something you do very well, whether in your own country or abroad.”
Despite the advance of secularism, particularly among the young, and influence from various Protestant denominations, as much as 86% of the population of 110 million claims affiliation with the Catholic Church.
In the coming months, Knights of Columbus councils in the Philippines will be involved in a wide variety of jubilee activities, including presentations on missionary outreach, evangelization and Church history — in addition to their many ongoing charitable works. With more than 470,000 members in nearly 3,500 councils spread throughout the archipelago, the Order has both a notable place in the country’s Catholic history and a prominent role in the Church’s future.
“We join our brothers and sisters in the Philippines in celebrating 500 years of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and his Church, said Supreme Knight Patrick E. Kelly. “I have long admired the profound faith exhibited by the Filipino people, and particularly my brother Knights of Columbus from the Philippines, to whom I send fraternal greetings on behalf of the whole Order. I thank God for that witness and pray that this anniversary, marking a half-millennium of Catholic faith, provides not only an opportunity for celebration, but also for renewal.”
The story of the faith in the Philippines over the centuries has been one of grace and growth amid challenges. No institution has had a deeper and more positive effect on the Filipino people and their culture than the Catholic Church. Although the faith was brought with Spanish colonial rule, Filipinos took to Catholicism immediately and were able to separate the goodness of the faith from the sometimes oppressive actions of the government.
That reality is underscored by the fact that both canonized Filipino saints, St. Lorenzo Ruiz (1594-1637) and St. Pedro Calungsod (1654-1672), were laymen who died as martyrs, not from persecution in their homeland, but as missionaries to other Asian lands.
A history of Christianity in the Philippines written for the quincentenary notes, “That the first two saints produced by the Philippines were laypersons is no coincidence.” It continues by quoting the eminent historian Jesuit Father John Schumacher: “The religious life introduced by the missionaries was not a diluted version of European Christianity. … Not mere individual conversions were sought for, but rather the creation of a Christian community.”
This emphasis on building strong Christian communities is a key reason the Knights of Columbus has flourished in the Philippines since the first council was founded in Manila in 1905. Many of the charter members of Council 1000 were U.S. soldiers stationed in the capital after the Spanish-American War, but Filipino men were soon welcomed and quickly advanced to leadership positions. Jesuit Father George Willmann, known as “the Father McGivney of the Philippines,” would later observe that the heart of the Filipino man was conformed naturally to the principles of the Knights of Columbus.
A recent example of the social influence of the Church — as well as the role of Knights in Philippine history — took place in 1986, during the peaceful People Power uprising against President Ferdinand Marcos’ reign of martial law. In a radio broadcast, Cardinal Jaime Sin, then archbishop of Manila, asked the people to take to the streets to stop the advance of the military against protestors. Thousands turned out with rosaries, and religious sisters knelt before tanks, as many soldiers abandoned their posts to pray with them.
Marcos was eventually exiled, and a new constitution was drafted; among those appointed to the job was Hilario Davide Jr., who later became chief justice of the Supreme Court. Now 85 years old, Davide is a longtime leader of Filipino Knights and served as chairman of KCFAPI, the Knights of Columbus fraternal insurance agency in the Philippines.
The Order continues to grow in large numbers in the Philippines — so much so that Luzon, which includes the capital of Manila, was divided into North and South in 2015 to make a total of four K of C jurisdictions. Knights are involved in numerous charitable works to serve the poorest in their country, including food programs for schools and families, and free medical and dental clinics. Knights also preserve the environment by planting trees and building ocean breakwaters in a land that suffers regular tropical storms. In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, which struck the central portion of the archipelago with winds nearing 200 mph, Filipino Knights partnered with the Supreme Council to launch the Livelihood Project, which employed carpenters to build boats for fishermen who had lost their vessels to the storm.
In anticipation of the official start of the jubilee year, Pope Francis offered Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on March 14, accompanied by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the former archbishop of Manila. Speaking at the end of Mass, which was attended by Filipinos living in Rome, Cardinal Tagle emphasized the acceptance of Catholicism as a grace-filled response to God’s gift.
“That the Christian faith was received by the majority of our people and given by them a Filipino character is God’s gift,” said the cardinal, who is a longtime member of the Knights. “Now the Philippines has the third largest number of Catholics in the world. This is truly God’s gift. We attribute the enduring faith of the Filipino people only to God’s love, mercy and fidelity, not to any merit of our own.”
Anniversary events continued March 31, when clergy and pilgrims gathered on Limasawa Island to commemorate the first recorded Mass. On April 14, the first baptism in the Philippines was reenacted in Cebu City in front of the Magellan Cross. The cross, which stands in the center of the city, is said to encase remnants of the original cross planted by Ferdinand Magellan on that spot. The same day, in the plaza beside the Basilica of Santo Niño, a Mass with a national ceremony for the renewal of baptismal promises was followed by a cultural exhibition to highlight the historic meeting of East and West.
Filipino Knights will continue to mark the quincentenary in different ways throughout the year; among the events planned so far are a series of talks given by Filipinos serving as missionaries abroad, historical lectures and twice-monthly virtual pilgrimages.
The Order’s anniversary commemorations in the Philippines are being led by Jose C. Reyes, former Luzon North deputy and now a member of the Knights of Columbus Board of Directors.
“The jubilee year theme, ‘Gifted to Give,’ highlights the call to all, rich and poor alike, to share whatever gifts they have received from God, since all Catholics have a mission of evangelization,” said Reyes, a recently retired justice on the Philippine Supreme Court. “People’s desire to reach others will translate into concrete action of sharing God’s love and letting people know more about God, not only in our own country but beyond.”
In a pastoral letter marking the anniversary, Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines and a former state chaplain of Mindanao, also underlined the need to look forward as well as back during the jubilee year. “We pray for a missionary renewal of our Church,” he wrote, “both at home (ad intra) and beyond our borders (ad extra) during our celebration of the 500 years — and into the future!”
Noting that the faith was brought by Spanish missionaries traveling with Magellan, Archbishop Valles pointed out that Christianity has nonetheless never been perceived as a religion imposed on the people.
“Five centuries ago we received the marvelous gift of the Christian faith; our hearts overflow with joy and gratitude,” he affirmed. “Why of all the nations and peoples in Asia was the Philippines chosen by God to be among the first to receive this precious gift? The clear answer is simply this: God’s magnanimous, overflowing love.”
BRIAN CAULFIELD is editor of Fathers for Good and vice postulator for the canonization cause of Blessed Michael McGivney.
JESUIT FATHER GEORGE J. WILLMANN (1897-1977) was given the title “Servant of God” in 2015, when the Archdiocese of Manila opened his cause for canonization. He also has a less formal title, one that reflects the esteem he earned for his pivotal role in K of C history: “Father McGivney of the Philippines.”
John W. McDevitt, supreme knight from 1964 to 1977, once said: “I do not suppose there is any member of the Order, any priest of God, who is known more for his faith in Columbianism than the unofficial supreme knight of the Philippines, Father Willmann.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., George Willmann entered the Society of Jesus in 1915 and during his formation was sent to the Philippines as a teacher. Falling in love with the country and its people, he asked to be assigned to the Jesuit mission there after his ordination. He arrived in Manila in 1936, where he joined Council 1000. He soon became convinced that the Knights of Columbus was key to forming men and their families in the Catholic faith and keeping them from Masonic associations.
When the Japanese invaded the islands in World War II, Father Willmann could have returned safely to the United States, but he chose to stay with his people, suffering near starvation in a prison camp. After the war, he led the Knights’ efforts to help rebuild the country and the Church, and petitioned the Supreme Council to expand operations. He became the national chaplain, district deputy and territorial deputy, and oversaw the creation of three jurisdictions, building up the Order to more than 450 councils with 30,000 members. He also founded Knights of Columbus Fraternal Association of the Philippines Inc. (KCFAPI), which continues to provide financial protection to members and their families.
A few weeks after attending the 1977 Supreme Convention in Indianapolis, Father Willmann fell ill while visiting relatives and died peacefully Sept. 14 at the age of 80. The Supreme Council arranged for his body to be flown back to the Philippines, where he had served 44 years. A memorial Mass was offered for him in the Manila Cathedral, and he was interred in a Jesuit cemetery.
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