Interview: Christian Unity Difficult but NOT Impossible, Church Historian says

Interview – christian unity difficult but not impossible, church historian says

BATAC CITY, Philippines — Local Roman Catholics and members of the Philippine Independent Church (IFI), which was founded in times of nationalist revolt, must foster good relations with each other despite deep wounds of colonial times, says Father Ericson Mamaril Josue.

The IFI, whose acronym comes from its official name, Iglesia Filipina Independiente, was established in 1902 in Batac, Ilocos Norte province. Revolutionary priest-general Father Gregorio Aglipay, a native of that northern city, led the Church as its first supreme bishop until 1940.

Its hierarchy comprised military priests who participated in the 1896-1898 Filipino revolution against Spanish rule. Their resistance continued through 1901 against American colonization, believed to be aided by missionary churches.

Father Josue, 31, has written a book about the painful split in the Philippine Catholic Church in the early 20th century. He says the Church today, comprising millions of Filipinos, can collaborate with IFI on common concerns in spite of wounds that racial discrimination and oppression inflicted during colonial times.

Belief in Jesus Christ requires it, the Church historian said. Both Catholic and IFI members were present when his book Out of the Depths: Revisiting the ‘epicenter’ of Aglipayanism was presented to the public on Dec. 14, 2008, in Batac, 340 kilometers north of Manila.

Father Josue’s book traces how the schism ushered in reform in the local Catholic Church, which was established by members of a 16th-century Spanish expedition. They started settlements in the country 44 years after Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition arrived on Mactan, a central Philippine island, in 1521.

Church data shows about 67 percent of the 658,450 people in Laoag diocese — covering all of Ilocos Norte and Laoag City, the provincial capital — are Catholics today. Around 5,000 IFI members live in Batac, Father Josue estimated.

The priest said his research while writing the book showed the Church as a human institution, with flaws and virtues. He also came to the conclusion that the Roman Catholic Church does not have a monopoly on the truth.

Reflecting on the prospects for ecumenism today, he alluded to Unitatis Redintegratio (1964), the Second Vatican Council’s “Decree on Ecumenism.”

The interview with Father Josue follows.

UCA NEWS: What inspired your book?

FATHER ERICSON MAMARIL JOSUE: The book intends to show how the Christian faith originated in Batac, Ilocos Norte. In 1586, a parish was erected in Batac following Juan De Salcedo’s expedition in the northern Philippines. Before then, Batac people, mostly engaged in traditional farming, were nature worshipers.

It also looks into one of the dark realities of discrimination in the clergy during the time of the Spanish friar rule. Filipino clergy remained as second-class priests. When they revolted after 300 years since Catholicism arrived in the country, a Filipino priest’s highest position was assistant priest. Filipino priests lobbied the Vatican for Filipinization, but the people of Spain interfered. The Vatican rejected their call; hence, the start of the schism.

The Roman Catholic Church went to the depths. That is why we titled the book Out of the Depths, because it is an inspiration of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord hear my voice! O let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleading.”

The book is launched on the centenary of the re-edification of Roman Catholicism in Batac. Out of the Depths attempts to retrace this movement in Batac, the epicenter of the tremors of the schismatic outbreak in the province. It likewise expresses gratitude to those who painstakingly worked, preserved and sustained the Church in the northern Ilocos region.

What is the schism about?

During the Spanish era, the Philippines were under Spanish dominion from civil to ecclesiastical hierarchy. As the civil realm was struggling for freedom from the Spanish monarchy, the Church, in the ecclesiastical sense, was also fighting for the Filipinization of the clergy — from the bishop to the clerics. It was a difficult time, when the Church, Spain or the time was not yet open for renewal.

On May 8, 1902, the 42nd birthday of then-Roman Catholic Father Gregorio Aglipay, the statesman and religious reformist who fought for freedom and the importance of native clergy, a gathering of Ilocano [Ilocos native] priests and laymen resolved to declare their independence from the Church of Rome.

They established a Filipino independent Church, but Aglipay requested the assembly to postpone the formal launching of the Church to give time to contact all Filipino priests and lay leaders.

On August 3, 1902, Don Isabelo de los Reyes of Vigan, Ilocos Sur, proclaimed the establishment of IFI. Without Padre [Father] Aglipay’s knowledge, leaders nominated him to head the new church. When de los Reyes handed his appointment papers, Padre Aglipay shed tears, bewailing loss of religious unity in the Philippines. After he went for retreat in a Jesuit retreat house, he decided to accept the post. Rome eventually excommunicated Aglipay.

What new information about the Aglipayan movement is in the book?

Reverend Apolonio Ranche, a historian of the IFI, expressed appreciation for inclusion of Supreme Court decisions.

We included decisions about the life of Catholics and Aglipayans then. There was a struggle over who owns the churches. The Filipinos were claiming churches “built by our forefathers.” They claimed these should go to IFI “founded for the Filipinos run by Filipinos.”

We included the celebrated Barlin-Ramirez case, which led to the return of churches, or became the basis of all verdicts in the case to regain old churches from the Aglipayan hands.

Another case, between (Father Jose) Evangelista and his former assistant priest, Father Roman Ver, was a very interesting story of exceptional loyalty and courage. Father Ver was the only priest who remained Roman Catholic in the schismatic province of Ilocos Norte in that period. He defied Evangelista.

When Evangelista returned home after his appointment as Aglipayan bishop in Manila, Father Ver did not let him in, saying: “You don’t have the right to come in because you are not anymore a Roman Catholic priest and this is owned by the Roman Catholic Church.”

The former parish priest filed a case against his former assistant and Ver won the case. That church, now St. William Cathedral, was the only church in the entire province of Ilocos Norte not taken over by the Aglipayans.

Why are you revisiting these problems and “dark days”?

It helps us appreciate what challenges the early native priests faced, and how the Catholic faith and Roman Catholicism survived and was revived. It is part of the story of how the Roman Catholic Church was able to reform itself and adapt itself to the changing times.

We learned that during that period the Roman Catholic faith “zeroed” in Batac. From Oct. 5, 1908, to May 12, 1909, there were zero Roman Catholic baptisms. Those who remained Catholic were the elite families.

We also presented here the painstaking efforts of the 20th-century pastors stoned in their homes and shouted at by the people during Masses. We cannot blame the people then because there was hatred in their hearts caused by the time of nationalism and Roman Catholicism [being] identified with the Spaniards.

From that depth, it is interesting to note that the Roman Catholic Church has risen again and now the parish [Immaculate Conception Parish in Batac] is considered one of the most active parishes in the entire diocese, as if there was no dark history about the parish.

In the book, we identify the wounds so we can exert effort to mend them through ecumenism.

What were significant changes and how was the Church able to reform?

Renewal came in the form of changes Gregorio Aglipay and followers pushed for. Now we have Mass in the local dialect, we have Filipino priests and the Church has recognized the importance of the poor living in rural areas, unlike in the Spanish-era Church, when it was branded as a Church of the elite.

In 1961, Pope John XXIII erected the Roman Catholic diocese of Laoag comprising Ilocos Norte and Laoag. The parish church of San Guillermo (St. William) was elevated to a cathedral, and the former chancellor and canon lawyer, Bishop Antonio Mabutas from neighboring Agoo, La Union, was named Laoag’s first Roman Catholic Bishop.

Bishop Mabutas believed that there was a need to educate the faithful on their faith, and one of his major thrusts was the foundation of Catholic schools in his diocese. In 1963, Immaculate Conception Academy (ICA) was founded in Batac, over the ruins of the palatial convent during the Spanish time.

Aside from exceptional pastors who worked for the edification of the Catholic faith in Batac, the Second Vatican Council, convoked by Pope John XXIII, led to renewal of the whole Roman Catholic Church, particularly as she responds to the demands of the modern world. The council promulgated 16 documents, and among the concerns tackled was ecumenism.

How did your book project affect your priestly vocation?

It deepened my vocation as a priest. I came to appreciate more the Church founded by Jesus Christ, who is both human and divine. It follows the nature of its founder. When I say human and divine, the Church has also its ups and downs, lights and shadows.

The Aglipayan story is, in a way, a “shadow,” because of the oppression during the time. There was a kind of injustice between the Spaniards and the Filipinos, the colonizers and the indigenous, or natives.

It is also a “light,” because it is a purifying moment. Without the Aglipay story, the Roman Catholic Church might not be what it is now, because the schism led to its renewal.

The outbreak was actually a catalyst for betterment. The thing that we have to do now is to foster ecumenism. Ecumenism is meant in our time as the reunion, reunification and fostering good relationships [with] other Churches.

How do you propose this can be done?

Well, it’s hard for us to achieve full reunification, because it takes a long time and needs a lot of effort. What we can do for the moment is a kind of federation among Christian Churches.

In Ilocos Norte, we have CLEF (Church Leaders’ Ecumenical Forum), founded by the Aglipayan bishops and Roman Catholic Bishop Sergio Utleg [of Laoag] in response to the call for ecumenism.

I learned that the Roman Catholic Church does not have the monopoly on the truth. We claim that the Roman Catholic Church is the Church founded by Jesus Christ, but we do not own all or everything about the truth. There is also a grain of truth in the Aglipayan Church, a grain of truth in the Protestant Churches and a grain of truth in other Churches.

So, ecumenism upholds the principle of plurality: “amidst diversity, there is unity.” I am totally different from you, you are different from the other, and it leads to different perspectives because of this uniqueness that we have. Christianity, faith in Jesus Christ, would be the unifying factor.


Originally published in


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