VATICAN— Pope Francis offered Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday to mark 500 years of Catholic faith in the Philippines.
“Dear brothers and sisters, 500 years have passed since the Christian message first arrived in the Philippines. You received the joy of the Gospel: the good news that God so loved us that he gave his Son for us. And this joy is evident in your people. We see it in your eyes, on your faces, in your songs and in your prayers,” Pope Francis said in his homily on March 14.
“I want to thank you for the joy you bring to the whole world and to our Christian communities,” the pope said.
The first Catholic Mass and first baptism took place in the Philippines in the year 1521. Today, the Philippines has the third largest number of Catholics in the world. An estimated 86% of the 108 million population of the Philippines is Catholic.
“On this very important anniversary for God’s holy people in the Philippines, I also want to urge you to persevere in the work of evangelization – which is not the same as proselytism, which is another thing. The Christian proclamation that you have received needs constantly to be brought to others. The Gospel message of God’s closeness cries out to be expressed in love for our brothers and sisters,” the pope said.
Filipino Catholics who live in Rome attended the Mass at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s Basilica, which was also live-streamed for people to watch around the world.
Italy has one of the largest populations of Filipino migrant workers in western Europe with over 165,000 overseas Filipinos living in the country as of 2014.
Pope Francis reflected: “I recall the many beautiful experiences of families here in Rome – but also throughout the world – where your discreet and hardworking presence became a testimony of faith in the footsteps of Mary and Joseph. For God loves to bring the joy of faith through humble, hidden, courageous and persevering service.”
Mass began with a procession of eight representatives of the Filipino community dancing and carrying the cross of Magellan and the Holy Child of Cebu.
The pope encouraged Filipino Catholics around the world to continue evangelizing with joy.
“Never be afraid to proclaim the Gospel, to serve and to love,” Francis said.
There were no native clergy for the first 300 years of Catholicism in the Philippines. In 1905, the first Filipino-born bishop, Jorge Imperial Barlin, was appointed. Barlin is buried in Rome, where he died during an ad limina visit in 1909.
In his homily, Pope Francis reflected on the words from the Gospel of John: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son.”
The pope said: “Precisely because he loves us so much, God gives himself; he offers us his life. Those who love always come out of themselves. … Love always offers itself, gives itself, expends itself.”
“That is the power of love: it shatters the shell of our selfishness, breaks out of our carefully constructed security zones, tears down walls and overcomes fears, so as to give freely of itself. … That is how lovers are: they prefer to risk self-giving over … self preservation. And that is why God comes … to us: because he ‘so loved’ us. His love is so great that he cannot fail to give himself to us.”
In most dioceses in the Philippines, the anniversary year will be inaugurated on Easter Sunday, April 4, after nine years of preparation. The dioceses have designated certain churches as special pilgrim churches for the year.
“It is not only what we can make or earn that matters; in the end, it is the love we are able to give,” the pope said.
“Sometimes we look for joy where it is not to be found: in illusions that vanish, in dreams of glory, in the apparent security of material possessions, in the cult of our image,” he said. “But life teaches us that true joy comes from realizing that we are loved gratuitously, knowing that we are not alone, having someone who shares our dreams and who, when we experience shipwreck, is there to help us and lead us to a safe harbor.”
The Mass was attended by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the former archbishop of Manila.
Before the final blessing, Cardinal Tagle addressed a greeting to Pope Francis, and the pope was given two gifts by the people.
“We bring you the filial love of Filipinos in the 7,641 islands of our country. There are more than ten million Filipino migrants living in almost one hundred countries in the world. They are united with us this morning,” Tagle said.
The cardinal from the Philippines teared up as he spoke to the pope and the people.
“From 1521 to 2021, we see gift upon gift. We thank God for the bearers of the gift these 500 years: the pioneering missionaries, the religious congregations, the clergy, the grandmothers and grandfathers, the mothers and fathers, the teachers, the catechists, the parishes, the schools, the hospitals, the orphanages, the farmers, the laborers, the artists, and the poor whose wealth is Jesus,” he said.