Power Dynamics Beyond Collusion and Resistance – J.M.C. Francisco

2. The Symbolic Power of Filipino Catholicism

With Catholicism’s enduring presence and social engagement, Philippine life and society are marked by a symbolic network of stories related to Christ’s life, images of holy women and men, and religious rituals associated with important occasions like harvest season or family bereavement. 

Though generated by Spanish Catholicism’s missionary efforts, this symbolic network developed with the use of Philippine languages for evangelization and production of religious texts. Despite church concern for fidelity to Catholic Faith and its colonial associations, Catholicism took native form. Native views, values and practices embedded in these languages infiltrated Christian discourse. Moreover, since these texts were used in communal and personal contexts, native appropriation of Catholicism became profoundly rooted.

Even with changing historical contexts during the 20th century, Catholic places of worship, education and other ministries characterize the social landscape. Images of Christ, “Mama Mary” and saints adorn altars at government buildings, homes and vehicles. Traditional religious occasions occupy the yearly calendar: Christmas, the November remembrance of departed relatives, Holy Week and the town patron’s feast day.

This symbolic network extends to those not connected to Christian churches. Local sects with eclectic practices abound along traditionally revered mountains or in Metro Manila’s urban poor alleys. They often consider leaders like hero Jose Rizal as God’s prophet or the Filipino Christ.

Hence this extensive symbolic network wields power beyond church control and shapes religious practice. It offers an array of stories, images and rituals through which people frame their everyday lives. Gemma Tulud Cruz maintains that Filipino migrant workers do not only bring religious objects abroad but also conceive their overseas work in terms of Christian sacrifice.[5]

But this symbolic network’s power is most manifest in social engagement. Woven beneath the fabric of everyday life, it irrupts during extraordinary occasions or critical times considered liminal. For instance during and after the colonial periods, social movements tapped into this network. Reynaldo Ileto credits the epic-like Casaysyan nang Pasiong Mahal[The Story of the Sacred Passion] (1812) for providing the language for social change among 19th century movements, and Joseph Scalise underscores its communal chanting.[6] John Schumacher locates this network’s power in the wider religious tradition “found in the hundreds of different novenas and devocionarios…found in very major Philippine language…[that] did more to form folk religious perceptions, for better or worse, than did the catechism memorized by rote in primary schools.”[7]

The January Black Nazarene procession and the popularly-called 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution provide contemporary instances. The whole-day procession of millions from diverse backgrounds along Manila’s crowded streets show the public face of religious devotion. The EDSA Revolution against Marcos, though supported by the institutional church and other political forces, made the network’s power prominently visible through Catholic images and rituals, so that some piously framed this upheaval as “the exodus of the Filipino people.”[8]

Some have considered the extent and power of Filipino Catholicism’s symbolic network as nothing more than “cultural Christianity.” Such an understanding based on the false dissociation of religion from all other aspects of life proves inadequate in the face of Filipino Catholicism’s social engagement.

[5] G. T. Cruz, Into the Deep: A Theological Exploration of the Struggle of the Filipina Domestic Workers in Hong Kong, Manila: Radboud University Nijmegen, 2006.

[6] R. C. Ileto, Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840-1910. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1979; J. Scalice. “Reynaldo Ileto’s Pasyon and Revolution revisited, a critique,” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeeast Asia 33 (2018) no. 1, pp. 29-58. 

[7] J. N. Schumacher, Readings in Philippine Church History, Quezon City: Loyola School of Theology, 1982, p. 456.

[8] R. Moyer, Bayan Ko! Images of the Philippine Revolt, Project 28 Days, Hongkong, 1986.

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