Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Saturday, August 8, 2015


(Conclusion:Part 3 of a 3-Part Series)

 By The Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred B. Vergara

 On August 3, 1902 the Iglesia Filipina Independiente was proclaimed by labor leader and “father of unionism in the Philippines, “ Don ­­­Isabelo Delos Reyes, Sr. at Centro De Bellas Artes in Manila. The labor movement chose Fr. Gregorio Aglipay to head the new church independent from Rome. In an instant, more than 1/3rd of the Filipino Catholic population (3 million out of 8 million) affiliated to this church as they saw as the “the tangible result of the Philippine Revolution of 1896-1898.” What gave rise to this religious reform movement? What are its trials and triumphs? What made it survive against all odds and what accounts for its renewal?

There are three elements that make for a revolution: common experience of pain, common vision of hope and emergence of leaders who embody those pains of the masses as well as their visions and hopes.

The Philippine Revolution of 1896 was truly a revolution of the masses. Although the Ilustrados or the middle class did a lot of propagandizing and agitation for reform, the leader of the Cry of Pugadlawin, Andres Bonifacio, was a plebian. He and his family suffered from poverty and maltreatment from the ruling power. From the anvil of that suffering, was fashioned the hope that the future would be brighter for Filipinos when the foreign rulers are driven away and the indigenous are free to carve their own destiny. Bonifacio was willing to trade his own life for the betterment of his progeny.

Jose Rizal, on the other hand was a reformer all the way. Up to the last moment of his breath he did not consider himself to have abandoned the hope that the Filipinos would eventually find themselves represented in the Spanish Cortes and the Philippines being recognized as a province of Spain. An anecdote says that during his execution he anticipated the crack of rifle sounds and turned his back to face the bullets to indicate that he had never betrayed Mother Spain.

It is interesting to note that in the founding and establishment of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, the characters of Bonifacio and Rizal would find themselves embodied in Isabelos Delos Reyes, Sr. and Gregorio Aglipay. 

Delos Reyes had resolved that schism was the only way to realize the dream of Filipinization of the Church. As a layman and radical labor leader, he had no divided loyalty between the Filipino masses and the established Church. He saw no hope that the institutional church can change and make accommodation for the rights of the Filipino clergy. His loyalty was only to the Filipino masses and their clergy who suffered from the abuses of the Spanish friars.

On the other hand, Aglipay was vacillating because as an ordained Catholic priest, he had imbibed the sophia wisdom of the Church. Oftentimes, conscience makes cowards of us all. As a courageous Military Vicar General of President Emilio Aguinaldo, Aglipay was one of the last officers to surrender to the Americans. But when it comes to renouncing Vatican and deciding for a schism, Aglipay was having a hard time. 

When he learned that Delos Reyes had appointed him “supreme head” of the independent church, Aglipay initially rejected it and proceeded to have a conversation with the Jesuits in Ateneo University, still hoping to get their support for reform. Ironically, it was the insensitivity of Jesuit superior, Fr. Forodada that exacerbated the situation. Instead of listening to Aglipay, Forodada offered him a bribe and belittled the competence of the Filipino clergy. In anger, Aglipay reached for his throat and announced he was ending his quest for internal reform. He then accepted the invitation of Delos Reyes and embraced his new role as the “supreme head” of the Filipino Church independent from Rome.

The partnership of Delos Reyes and Aglipay captured the imagination of the Filipino people as parishes after parishes threw in their lot and affiliated with the Iglesia Filipina Independiente. The news of religious revolution spread like wildfire as the parishioners drove out their Spanish priests and invited in the Filipino priests appointed by Aglipay. 

One of the remarkable stories was about the church women in Pandacan led by the descendant relatives of Fr. Jacinto Zamora, one of the three GOMBURZA martyrs. The women drove their Spanish priest who was preaching against Aglipay and even dragged him out of the convent. Then they camped outside the church to prevent the priest from returning and requested for a priest from IFI.

The overthrow of the Spanish Catholicism was so dramatic that in short while, more than one-third (3 million out of 8 million) of the Roman Catholic Filipinos had turned Aglipayan. 

The years 1902 till 1940’s were a period of rapid Americanization of Philippine Society. The American brand of democracy, the freedoms of speech and assembly, the separation of Church and State, and the capitalist system have replaced the Spanish encomienda, “frailocracy” (theocracy) and patronage system. The American colonial government also proved to be amiable to the Filipinos than their Spanish counterpart. It was also a period of physical restoration as people struggled to put their lives back together after years of tumults and revolution.

The birth and spontaneous growth of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente created a disastrous effect on the Catholic faith and worried the Pope in Rome. It was at that moment that the Vatican acted towards a program of counter-reformation designed to save their only Catholic satellite in Asia, recover from the damage done by the Filipino schism and lessen the gains of  American Protestantism which is now beginning to pick-up the fallen fruits from the Catholic tree shaken by the IFI.

On November 1902, the unpopular papal nuncio, Placido Chapelle was replaced by an Italian Archbishop Giovanni Baptista who brought with him the papal solution, the revised Apostolic Constitution, Quae Mari Sinico.

Promulgated from the Manila Cathedral on December 8,1902, the Quae Mari Sinico gave the semblance of reformation and in effect an accession to the Filipinization Movement waged earlier by Aglipay and his followers. In that promulgation, Pope Leo XIII acknowledged the end of Spanish political and religious sovereignty over the islands, the end of the patronato of the Spanish crown and the restructuring of the Catholic Church in the Philippines. It also provided for better educational development for Filipino secular priests, the suppression of the privileges of the religious orders, and the equality in the enforcement of ecclesiastical discipline. It fell short, however in the promotion of Filipino priests to better parishes and their elevation to the episcopacy.

As the Quae Mari Sinico was in effect, the Spanish bishops started to resign. Some died and others retired and returned to Spain. Instead of replacing them with Spanish prelates, Vatican sent American bishops. The aristocratic Archbishop Nozaleda who excommunicated Gregorio Aglipay was replaced by a diplomatic Archbishop Jeremias Harty. Another affable American bishop, Dennis Dougherty, was assigned to the Diocese of Nueva Segovia where Aglipay used to serve as Ecclesiastical Governor during the time of the first Philippine Republic.

Similar reforms were done in Catholic dioceses in Iloilo and Cebu and finally, in 1905, the first Filipino Bishop was consecrated in Diocese of Nueva Caceres (Naga City in Bicolandia), the Rt. Rev. Jorge Barlin. It appeared that the direction of Quae Mari Sinico was to win the disgruntled Filipino Catholics back to the Roman fold.

As the new reform movement was going on in the Catholic Church, Filipino priests loyal to Aglipay became objects of counter-attacks from the seemingly revitalized parishes. They began to brand Aglipayan priests as “pari-parian” (pseudo priests) because many of them were graduated under Aglipay's tutorship program during the time of the revolution and not formal theological training in Catholic seminaries. The Catholic apologists and propagandists also labeled Aglipay as instrument of Satan and the IFI as the “synagogue of the anti-Christ.”

But the biggest blow to the fledgling IFI happened in 1906 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Roman Catholic Church over the buildings and properties occupied by the Filipino Church. Strategically initiated by Bishop Barlin, the first Filipino bishop, the lawsuit argued that even when the said church buildings were constructed from the blood, sweat and tears of the Filipino masses who are members of the IFI, the legal ownership belongs to the Vatican Pope as corporation sole. 

The basis of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision against the IFI was that these buildings of stone were under the Pope of Rome. When Spain ceded the Philippines to America, the agreement was with the Spanish Crown and not with the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, when the Spanish colonial government left the Philippines and ceded ownership of the islands for 20 million dollars to America, they only included the properties of the Spanish Crown and not the papal lands and the property of the Roman Catholic Church. The IFI were ordered to vacate their churches and turn in the key to the designated priest of the Roman Catholic Church.

The 1906 was a nightmare or baptism or fire for the Aglipayan Movement. Overnight, its clergy and people were dispossessed of their churches, rectories and cemeteries. The pride of the Aglipayans as “the Filipino Church” was shred into pieces. Their dream of grandeur was shattered. All over the country, there was stunned silence as the former religious revolutionaries mourned the loss of their church buildings---and their face. Various Roman Catholic Church pundits predicted that the IFI would die in ten years!

Ten years had passed, nay 113 years have passed today, and the Iglesia Filipina Independiente remains standing. No, it did not die in ten years. In fact, it remained as strong as ever. It may not be as grand as it was in 1902 but it has continued to grow by leaps and bounds.

The IFI has now forty-three (43) dioceses, including two overseas dioceses in USA and Canada. With an estimated 3 to 4 million members, it is still considered the second largest next to the Roman Catholic Church. It has two seminaries (St. Paul Seminary in the Visayas and Aglipay Central Theological Seminary in Luzon) and another seminary shared from the Episcopal Church, St. Andrew’s Theological Seminary. The Obispo Maximo (Supreme Bishop) of the IFI is also considered the fourth most influential spiritual leader in the Philippines.

Aside from the 1906 Supreme Court Decision and the relentless counter-attacks from its “Mother Catholic Church,” the Iglesia Filipina Independiente also underwent many internal strifes and intra-church litigations, wandering in “theological wilderness” (from “religious Filipinism” to “Unitarianism” and back to “Catholicism,”) and many other setbacks. But despite all odds, the IFI remains standing. What accounts for its staying power? Let us listen to some historians:

Teodoro Agoncillo: “The Philippine Independent Church is the only living and tangible product of the Philippine Revolution.” The Philippine Revolution of 1896-1898 was both a political and religious revolution. When the political dream was lost with the coming of American imperialism replacing the Spanish colonialism, the religious dream carried on the revolution. During the American Era, the Philippine flag was freely hoisted inside the IFI churches and the Pambansang Awit (Philippines’ national anthem) was freely sung during its Misa Balintawak (Mass of Pugadlawin). The American principle of separation of church and state allowed this thing to happen. The IFI logo using the colors of the Philippine flag with the words “Pro Deo et Patria”(for God and Country) signify that the IFI carried the will of the masses. Despite its many setbacks, the downtrodden masses never abandoned the revolution. The IFI church buildings made of bamboo and nipa standing next to the stone-churches which they lost to the Roman Church were a testimony that they were the ”church of the poor.”

William Henry Scott: “The Philippine Independent Church is a hybrid Reformed Church called out and prepared by the Grand Historian from off the coast of Southeast Asia.” Just like the name of one of its assemblies, “Pinili,” the IFI was “chosen” to be a light of Christ in the Far East. The struggle for reformation of the Catholic Church in the Philippines was long and hard but ironically, it was the schismatic move of Delos Reyes that paved the way for the prestige of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines. Today, there are bishops, archbishops and cardinals who are Filipinos. It does not seem far-fetched to have a Filipino Pope someday, but the beginning of it all was the sacrifice of Filipino priests like Aglipay who saw the vision of equality for all clergy, regardless of race, color or ethnicity. Delos Reyes and Aglipay believed that the Filipino clergy can stand alongside Spanish and other racial groups in ecclesiastical dignity. They dreamt of a Filipino nation enrolled in the family of free nations and a Filipino Church enrolled in the family of free churches. Today, the Philippines is part of the United Nations and the IFI is a constituent member of the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. The IFI is in Concordat of Full Communion (signed in 1961) with The Episcopal Church (which bestowed upon them the gift of apostolic succession in 1948, making the IFI Catholic in faith and doctrine). It is also in concordat with Church of England in the worldwide Anglican Communion and the Old Catholic Churches in Europe.

Lewis Bliss Whittemore (on 1906 Decision): “It was humiliating to abandon the great churches where they and their parents had worshipped, and the wonder is not that so many abandoned the Independent Church but that so many stayed in it…these people tasted the gall and bitterness of defeat and humiliation. But they never gave up, whether because of native courage or something better. My own theory is that they felt, as no other group, identified with the Philippines and carried the ark of the covenant with them in the wilderness. That covenant was with the heroes of the past who had seen visions of a fairer Philippines---and had suffered. They could not see the future but they knew something precious had been entrusted to them. Like Abraham, they ventured forth into the unknown. Confused and homeless, they started to rethink and to rebuild.” 

The Most Rev. Ephraim Fajutagana, current Obispo Maximo of La Iglesia Filipina Independiente

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