The Philippines is an archipelago in Southeast Asia consisting of 7,641 islands, 2,000 of which are inhabited. The two largest islands, Luzon and Mindanao, account for two-thirds of the total surface area and population. The first includes the capital, Manila, and the second is home to the majority of the Muslim population, having experienced Islamist terrorism.
Aid to the Church in Need’s head of section for the Philippines, Veronique Vogel, recently returned from a project trip to the country and discussed the current situation and challenges facing the Church.
What is the current situation in the Philippines? There was a change of president last year, how has that impacted the situation?
Last year, Bongbong Marcos was elected president. The current situation in the country is calm compared to the previous president, Rodrigo Duterte. It was feared that Marcos might bring a return to dictatorship, as had been the case under his father, but this has not happened, and democratic norms have so far been respected. There are fewer murders and the number of extra-judicial killings related to drugs have also reduced. Despite this, democracy is still weak.
The country suffers from corruption at many levels of society and government and this is the biggest problem. One bishop described the Filipino society and the way of governance akin to nepotism by which family connections and the people you know being of utmost importance. Another problem in the country is the high rate of migration, with 1.96 million Filipinos living abroad. Of these, fifty-two percent are women, which has led to widespread family breakdown.
Poverty is a major issue in the country, with nearly twenty-eight percent of the population living below the poverty line, a situation that was aggravated by the pandemic. This is not so visible in Manila, but it is prominent in rural areas, which also applies to Mindanao and has fuelled the region’s problem with Islamist extremism. Areas of the economy are doing well and the domestic market is very strong, with the Philippines very much being a consumerist society. On the other hand, those working in the agricultural sector, about one-third of the population, is at the mercy of stock exchange prices for crops such as tobacco, coconut, sugarcane, etc.
What is the situation with violent Islamist extremism, particularly in Mindanao?
It is relatively quiet at the moment. There are still some pockets of violence, mostly involving the Islamic State (IS). There was a bombing shortly before I travelled to the Philippines. The military is everywhere in Mindanao, providing security. For example, bishops in the region have military escorts. There is fear that violence could escalate again if the military is withdrawn.
How would you describe the situation for the Catholic Church in the Philippines?
In 2021, the Philippines celebrated the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity. Today, just over ninety-one percent of the population are Christians, with Catholics accounting for eighty-two percent. Muslims make up around seven percent of the population and just over one percent are animists. The Philippines has the third largest Catholic population in the world, with over 81 million faithful, only behind Brazil and Mexico. It is also one of the two majority Christian countries in Asia, alongside East Timor. Catholicism was introduced to the Philippines by the Spanish, and this influence is still visible, for example, in the style of statues in churches.
The Filipinos are spiritual people. Mass attendance is high and devotions to the Black Nazarene and to Our Lady are strong and very tangible. For example, one parish had eight Masses on a Sunday. The people are full of joy and very kind, generous and hospitable. There are also very active parish councils which are led by the lay faithful, with women being highly involved.
What are some of the challenges facing the Church in the Philippines?
Priests say that they see fewer young people coming to Mass. Many young people prefer to meet in shopping centres than in the local parish council. Another issue is lasting elements of animism. Some paganism is left, with many Catholics in rural areas still praying to ancestors. Christianity is in some ways still superficial and not deeply rooted. There is also the major issue of violence, drugs and alcohol. This is often related to broken homes, with violence frequently directed against women and children. In broken families it is also often the case that the faith is not passed down properly to the children. More work is needed to deeply root the true values of the Gospel; for example, one priest told me about many young people who do not marry in churches, as they cannot afford expensive weddings, which some feel are required for a Church wedding. These couples often live together without getting married, but despite this they want to be involved in the Church.
There is also a growing issue of sects in the Philippines. There are small Protestant groups, but there is also the Iglesia ni Cristo sect, which has approximatively 2.7 million members and claims to be the true Church. Some join them as they find the rules of the Catholic Church too hard. The Iglesia ni Cristo frequently proselytises outside Catholic churches after Mass.
Still, we met people and parishioners who are very enthusiastic and very involved in their parishes. The Catholic Church is dynamic and well organised, and Catholicism is deeply embedded in the Filipino identity.
What is ACN doing to help support the Church in the Philippines?
Much of our support focuses on assisting the formation of seminarians, novices and catechists. We also support ongoing formation of priests and religious sisters. ACN supports the works of various commissions in the dioceses to address the issues of broken families and help pass on the Faith in these families to the children.
ACN also supports inter-religious dialogue, particularly through our help to the Silsilah movement, which started in Zamboanga, on the island of Mindanao. ACN has been working with the founder of this movement, Fr. Sebastiano d’Ambra, for some forty years. The focus is on interreligious dialogue, primarily between Catholics and Muslims, and how these communities can live together in peace. At the same time, another priority is deepening the faith of Catholics living in areas that are either majority Muslim or have a large Muslim minority. Catholics living in these areas need to know and understand their own Faith in depth. Therefore, the Emmaus movement, a branch of Silsilah, has established a College of Theology for young people, so that they can actively and efficiently serve the Church as religion teachers. ACN supported the construction of this College of Theology and is now helping build a hostel for female theology students. We also partially fund the theology studies of students hailing from families with financial needs.