Filipinos and devotion
by Ronnie Hoyle
THE Roman Catholic calendar of events each year is closely followed by
Filipinos, since religion plays an essential part in the everyday life
of most families: many homes and businesses have their own private
shrines where the devoted pay homage each day and seek the blessings and
intervention of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and a host of other venerated
saints when dealing with God.
For Westerners, who are not so committed to religious conviction, it may
seem strange that belief has such a firm grasp on Filipinos but, in most
cases, this is what holds families so strongly together, just as
Buddhism does in Thailand and elsewhere and as Shinto – “the way of the
gods” – does for many people in Japan.
Life for most Filipinos revolves around the local church or chapel, and
to have someone in the immediate family employed in the work of the
church, even in a limited way, is the source and summit of pride in the
community, which is partly why many families feel obliged to send sons
or daughters away to become nuns or priests.
The main source of guidance in the morals of the family, the church also
provides much of the education for Filipinos and – although not dictated
or imposed by the State, which constitutionally allows religious freedom
– it is generally looked upon by the State as the main religious
institution and the second authority on the provision of education: many
of the universities in the country were established by church
authorities and are still controlled and financed by the church.
In a country where the people feel more poor compared to Westerners,
religion provides a basis for hope for a better future as well as
stability in the present and a certain amount of backing when confronted
by the few extremely rich, powerful - and often corrupt - people of
their own country.
The church also attempts to play a great part in State affairs and is
not reticent about supporting a particular political candidate and
urging their congregations to shore up their choice as well. Cardinal
Jamie Sin, then head of the church in the country, even sanctioned and
urged the public in newspapers and over radio to back the EDSA
Revolution which deposed dictator President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and
resulted in the birth of the ‘people power’ movement.
Filipinos were properly converted to Catholicism in 1565 when it was
superimposed on their previous animistic and pagan traditions by the
Spanish priests who travelled with Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, who first
landed on Bohol before reaching Cebu.
Priests, who escorted Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 on the first epic
round-the-world voyage of discovery, had attempted to do this in Cebu
itself that year, but 40 years later the old gods had taken over again:
nowadays it is estimated that some 84% of Filipinos are Catholic,
although elements of animism are still evident in many other
superstitious beliefs and practices.
Previous to the introduction of Catholicism, many of the southern
islands were composed of practicing Islamizes, influenced by traders
from Borneo and Indonesia. They still have a strong control over many
people living in some areas of trouble-torn Mindanao, the Sulu islands
and the southern half of Palawan, although they only represent
approximately 4% of the total population according to government
For Filipinos, organizing most other events outside of those controlled
by the church calendar has to have the blessing of the Catholic Church
and fit in with their functions, even to the extent of having a priest
attend outside events to sanctify them and to keep away bad spirits…one
of the indications that many ancient superstitious beliefs are still
alive and have not been completely eradicated.
UPDATED FROM HERE ON…
Combining the various belief systems which operate in the country and
making them work with each other does not appear to be too difficult for
Filipinos, even when their structure of Catholicism differs from its
original European form to a great degree.
People who profess to be Catholics one minute can also incorporate
Taoism from Chinese origins the next, with beliefs in propitious dates
and events, and then accept Shamanistic attitudes and conviction in
supernatural spirits from centuries-old former hunter-gatherer
lifestyles a few minutes later. They will often go to a local Shaman
instead of going to the doctor to cure some illnesses.
This particularly seems to apply to the diminutive Negrito tribes of
Negros who, some anthropologists’ think, may have come out of Africa
intact with their religiosity, or to have migrated from the mainland
Malaysian peninsular and the still animistic Andaman Islands in the Bay
of Bengal, in prehistory.
One of the widely accepted beliefs in several rural districts of the
Philippines is that some subordinate – or ancestral - spirits live
inside trees or other natural phenomena and must be appeased or they
will cause mischief: thus, offerings of fruit and flowers, together with
prayers, are often made before some trees are felled, while permission
must be asked before walking past their abode, particularly at night.
Trees are especially thought to be the ‘homes’ of the hundreds of ‘white
lady’ ghosts which are believed to haunt the region, according to local
chikka-chikka or gossip.
Superstitions concerning ‘the other world’ are legion in the Philippines
with belief in creatures like the Wak-wak – a sort of vampire which eats
babies, especially on moonlit nights and around Halloween on the dreaded
voodoo-like island of Siquijor, which most Filipinos refuse to visit –
as well as the Aswang – a human-hunting sort of big cat - and the Sigbin…supposedly
a form of spirit-like kangaroo creature which also enjoys nothing more
than snacking on a bit of mortal flesh and then disappearing back into
Unfortunately, none of the creatures have ever been captured, either in
person or on film, along with their many other counterparts in myth and
legend across the islands, although there are always stories of someone
who knows someone who knows someone else who…you get the picture?
The Catholic Church has tried for nearly six centuries to drive away
these ghastly ghouls of the past which still seem to plague the present
population, but so far without too much success.
Kilroy Was Here © 2006