Filipinos mark 500 years of Christian faith that connects them globally

People pray at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington Sept. 18, 2021, during a Mass marking the 500th anniversary of Christianity in the Philippines. (CNS photo/Andrew Biraj, Catholic Standard)

WASHINGTON (CNS) –– Filipino Catholics in the Washington area made a pilgrimage to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to celebrate a 500-year journey of faith that continues.

A Sept. 18 Mass commemorating five centuries of Christianity in the Philippines and the feast of St. Lorenzo Ruiz, the first Filipino martyr and saint, drew about 450 people. Some of the women wore native silk dresses in pastel colors with delicate stitching, and some men wore traditional barong tagalog, which are embroidered long-sleeved shirts.

The observance began with a procession of about 100 Filipino Catholics who sang hymns and marched around the basilica's exterior and through its main entrance. Young adults carrying a cross led the procession. Some children and adults carried banners representing different Catholic groups.

Statues of St. Lorenzo Ruiz and of Santo Niño de Cebú, the Holy Child Jesus sacred to Filipinos, were placed at the front of the sanctuary.

In accord with coronavirus safety guidelines, some participants wore special red face masks with the theme and logo of the anniversary year, "Gifted to Give," referring to how Filipino Catholics received the gift of faith 500 years ago and are called to share that gift with the world.

Echoing the theme, Auxiliary Bishop Mario E. Dorsonville of Washington, the main celebrant at the Mass, told those gathered during his homily: "You are gifted to go out and give.”

Bishop Dorsonville, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Migration, encouraged people to follow Pope Francis' call to go out into society and become missionary disciples, bringing Christ to the world, especially to the poor and migrants and refugees.

The liturgical celebration was part of jubilee year events commemorating the first Mass in the Philippines, which was celebrated on Easter, March 31, 1521, by a Spanish priest accompanying the voyage of Ferdinand Magellan.

The explorer died after engaging in a tribal battle there, but the expedition, which began with five ships and 260 men, eventually accomplished the first circumnavigation of the globe. Eighteen surviving crew members arrived in Spain on one remaining ship loaded with spices in September 1522.

The Christian faith has blossomed in the Philippines in the last five centuries. The Philippines today has the third largest Catholic population in the world, with about 86% of the country's 110 million inhabitants professing the faith.

More than 10 million Filipino migrants, most of them Catholic, live in 100 countries. About 2.9 million Filipino Catholics live in the United States.

In April 2021, as bishops across the Philippines opened holy doors at cathedrals to help launch the anniversary year, Pope Francis in a video message encouraged Filipino Catholics to "be grateful for the gift of faith" and called them to "reach out to others and bring them the hope and joy of the Gospel.”

Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and former archbishop of Manila, also recorded a video message for the jubilee.

In it, he praised the "hidden simple witnesses to the faith" for five centuries that has contributed to "our character as Filipinos, to the betterment of the Filipino culture and to the formation of the Filipino nation."

Fr. Patrick Agustin, parochial vicar of St. Martin of Tours Parish in Gaithersburg, Md., in the Archdiocese of Washington, is seen in this file photo. He said his vocation was inspired by growing up in a devout Filipino Catholic family. The archdiocese celebrated a Mass Sept. 18, 2021, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to mark the 500th anniversary of Christianity in the Philippines. (CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard)

At the Mass, Msgr. Walter Rossi, the basilica's rector, welcomed the Filipino community, noting that over the years he had witnessed their joy and faith. He noted that St. Lorenzo Ruiz is depicted in the basilica's dramatic Trinity Dome mosaic, and that its Crypt Church on the lower level includes an oratory to Our Lady of Antipolo that was donated by Filipino Catholics.

Bishop Dorsonville in his homily said the prominence of the basilica's artwork depicting St. Lorenzo Ruiz reflected the vital role of Filipino Catholics in the U.S. church.

He praised the witness of the saint, who was martyred with missionaries in Japan in 1637 after he refused to renounce his faith. Canonized 300 years later, he is venerated as a patron saint to the Philippines, to youth and altar servers, and for people working overseas.

Bishop Dorsonville also announced that Fr. Patrick Agustin would be serving as a chaplain for the Filipino Catholic community in the archdiocese.

Ordained in 2020, the young priest who serves as parochial vicar at St. Martin of Tours Parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland, reflected on the legacy of faith he experienced growing up in a devout Filipino Catholic family in the archdiocese.

"I'm a beneficiary of that, especially my vocation to the priesthood," he told the Catholic Standard, Washington's archdiocesan newspaper.

"Generations and generations of my ancestors have passed on the faith. I'm so grateful to my parents, who made sure we attended Mass as a family every Sunday," he said. "We prayed the rosary together.”

Fr. Agustin noted that five centuries after Christianity was introduced to the land of his ancestors, deep "faith has continued to thrive, not only in the Philippines, but in all the Filipinos around the world.”

"Even if they've left the homeland, the faith is very much alive, and it connects us," he said. "This legacy of faith is a taste of home. The Catholic faith is ingrained in who we are as a Filipino people, in our devotions, in the way we pray. It is the center of every Filipino household.”