CEBU CITY – Philippine “people power” did not start with the millions who welcomed the papal visits of Saint John Paul II in 1981 and 1995 and of Pope Francis last year. It started in 1937 when for the first time in history, the International Eucharistic Festival (IEC), the spiritual festival centered on the Holy Mass that started at the turn of the 20th century, was held in Asia—in solidly Catholic Philippines.
When Manila hosted the 33rd IEC in 1937, some 1.5 million people from all over the world attended the festival. Six-hundred thousand took part in one religious procession while tens of thousands attended the pontifical Masses at Luneta.
Among Filipino children receiving their first Communion at that time was eight-year-old Ricardo Vidal, now cardinal-archbishop emeritus of Cebu.
Vidal, 84, was president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) in 1986 when following the call of Cardinal Jaime Sin of Manila, the CBCP urged the dictator Ferdinand Marcos to step down and triggered the Edsa People Power revolution.
Also going to the Luneta with his parent to witness the festival was a child “provinciano” from Batangas, Gaudencio Rosales.
Now also a retired cardinal, Rosales, 83, succeeded Cardinal Sin as Manila archbishop in 2003.
Both prelates have encouraged Filipinos from all over the world to join the 51st IEC in Cebu and will co-celebrate pontifical Masses for pilgrims along with Archbishop Piero Marino, president of the Pontifical Commission on Eucharistic Congresses based in the Vatican.
‘Olympics for the Soul’
The 5st IEC, the “Olympics for the Soul” or spiritual festival held by the Catholic Church every year and later at fairly regular intervals since 1888, opens in Cebu Sunday, returning to the country almost 79 years after it was first held in Manila in 1937.
Back then, the 33rd IEC was historic since it was the first time that it was being held in Asia, where the Christian majority only obtained in the Philippines.
But evincing the growth of Christianity in the “pagan” Far East, the IEC has since been held in Bombay in predominantly Hindu India in 1964 (38th IEC) , and in Seoul in predominantly Buddhist Korea in 1989 (44th).
Commonwealth to republic
Since then, too, much has happened to the Philippines as a nation. It was a Commonwealth under the United States of America; but now it is a full-fledged republic.
Back in 1937, the pope was Pius XI, who sat at Saint Peter’s chair from 1922 to 1939. He was the first pope to sit as a sovereign of Vatican City when it was created a state by virtue of the Lateran treaty in 1929.
The concordat ended the papacy’s tumultuous relations with the Italian state after Garibaldi’s unification of Italy in the late 19th century.
Today, Pope Francis continues to sit as a Vatican sovereign like Pius XI. But he has largely shed the very pronounced monarchical, imperial trappings of the papacy that ruled the Papal States before Italian unification.
Perhaps recognizing the status of the Philippines as a US Commonwealth, Pope Pius XI sent as his papal legate to the Manila IEC an American prelate, Cardinal Denis Dougherty, Irish-American archbishop of Philadelphia.
The archbishop of Manila himself was Irish, Michael O’Doherty.
But showing the movement of the Church from North to South, from West to East, Pope Francis is sending to the Cebu IEC as papal legate Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon, Myanmar.
Christian bastion in Asia
Christianity has grown in Asia since 1937, with Catholic majorities in East Timor and perhaps Macau, and increasing Catholic presence and influence in Singapore and South Korea (the latter was visited by Pope Francis even ahead of the Philippines in 2014), but the Philippines now as then, remains the bastion of Christianity in Asia.
Back in 1937, there were 15 dioceses or church provinces in the country—Manila (founded in 1578), Nueva Segovia, covering the Ilocos (1595), Nueva Caceres, covering Bicol (1595), Lipa, covering Southern Tagalog (1910), Tuguegarao, covering Cagayan Valley (1910), Lingayen (1928), Mountain Province (1932), and Mindoro (1936); as well as Cebu (1595), Jaro (1865), Calbayog (1910), Zamboanga (1910), Palawan (1910), Bacolod (1932), and Cagayan de Oro (1933).
Now the Philippine Church has 85 dioceses and one military ordinariate (chaplaincy for the armed forces).
Although Manila remains the premiere see in the country, the formation of new dioceses (Caloocan, Novaliches, Cubao, Pasig and Paranaque) from its old territory in the last decade means that the Archdiocese of Cebu is now the largest diocese in Asia, with more than 150 parishes ministering to more than 3 million Catholics over a territory of more than 5,000 square kilometers.
Although Cebu may be divided into newer dioceses like Manila in the future, its numerical superiority as a result of the Balkanization of Manila has restored its preeminence as “the cradle of Christianity in the Philippines, considering that the first Christians in the country were the Cebuanos baptized during the Magellan expedition in 1521.
The 1937 IEC likewise provided a prelude to contentious relations between church and state in the Philippines.
Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon welcomed delegates to the Manila IEC, but he tangled with Archbishop O’Doherty over legalizing divorce and removing religion from public instruction.
Quezon was from Tayabas in Luzon, mainly under the ancient ecclesiastical province of the Archdiocese of Manila and studied under the Dominicans in Letran and the University of Santo Tomas. But he was a Mason and very ambitious.
In contrast, Commonwealth Vice-President Sergio Osmeña, Quezon’s classmate at UST, refused clashes with the Church.
Osmeña hailed from Cebu.
Then as now, clashes over sexual morality bedevil state-church relations.
When the Aquino administration and its allies in Congress passed the reproductive health bill in 2012, the opposition came from the CBCP led by Archbishop Jose S. Palma.
Palma later thanked Cebu congressmen for staunchly opposing the law.
Pius XI himself dealt with contentious church-state issues around the time when the IEC was being held in Manila in 1937.
Around that time, the Spanish civil war was raging. The war had broken out after the Republicans started killing Catholic clergy and religious in the early 1930’s. The nationalist Generalissimo Franco capitalized on the Christian persecutions, which killed thousands of nuns and clergy, to attack and defeat the Republicans.
Christians killed by the Republicans are considered martyrs and have since been beatified. Some of them had worked in the Philippines before, such as Blessed Buenaventura Garcia Paredes and Companion Martyrs, beatified by Pope Benedict XVI. They used to be students and teachers at UST and Letran.
Meanwhile, Pius XI also had to deal with the torching of churches in Mexico and the Christian persecutions in the Soviet Union.
Pius XI likewise signaled the Church’s growing involvement in social justice issues and her increasingly militant stand against liberal capitalism and Marxist socialism.
Pius XI issued the encyclical, Quadregesimo Anno, on the 40th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s milestone encyclical, Rerum Novarum, attacking capitalism and international finance and the abuse of workers’ rights.
He also condemned racism and Hitler.
Pius XI also issued the encyclical Studiorum Ducem in 1923 on the occasion of the sixth centenary of the canonization of Thomas Aquinas and upheld the teachings of the Dominican thinker as the official philosophy of the Church and the Angelicum in Rome as foremost promoter of the philosophy.
But as the Cebu congress gets underway, much has changed.
Instead of Thomism, there’s theological pluralism in the Church, as shown by discussions in the IEC Theological Symposium this week on “inculturation” or cultural adaptation of the Roman Rite of the Holy Mass, and more lenient, “more compassionate” treatment of remarried Catholics.
But it was also Pius XI who beatified popular saints such as Don Bosco and Therese of Lisieux, encouraged the Catholic Action movement and instituted the feast of Christ the King to promote more lay participation and democratization in the Church.
His legacy lives on as tens of thousands of Catholics are expected to join prelates, priests and religious in the 51st IEC in Cebu.