With the 500th anniversary of Christendom in the Philippines happening this year, what better time to engage to engage in one of the country’s most iconic lenten traditions: the Visita Iglesia. It’s a simple concept: you visit seven churches on the evening of Maundy Thursday after the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, praying before the altar on each spot. The tradition is imported from Rome with its seven pilgrimage basilicas but the tradition has decidedly home-grown roots: Intramuros once had seven pilgrimage churches too before six of them got obliterated in the Second World War.
It should go without saying though that this is not a tradition that could be recommended at the moment. At least, not physically. For anyone reading this in the future, the year is 2021 and it should be perfectly clear that something is still currently going on that makes meandering around town with scores of people not a great idea. Again, at least not physically.
The internet, being a magical place where a flick of a finger can transport you to anywhere in the world providing you have the imagination and Google Street View open, makes quarantine a good time to visit seven Filipino churches that are nowhere near each other. Here’s a neat trick you can do with your family: watch a Maundy Thursday service (if you’re inclined to, of course,) bring up the google maps or Wikipedia, and virtually check out our picks of the ultimate Philippines-wide Visita Iglesia this Holy Week.
San Agustin Church
If we have to start with Manila (and honestly, we don’t), we’re going to skip the Manila Cathedral and go for a bit of global prestige: the capital’s only UNESCO World Heritage site, the San Agustin Church. Part of the four-church set known as “the Baroque Churches of the Philippines,” the San Agustin Church is recognized as a treasure significant not only to Filipinos but to the human race. This may or may not be because everyone, everywhere seems to have had a hand in it: Spanish colonial ambition, Chinese immigrant labor, Filipino craftsmanship and worship, a continental European architectural style trying to adapt to South-East Asian terrain, all the way to the scars of Japanese and American bomb fires during WWII. Remember the bit about Intramuros’ Seven Pilgrimage Churches? Yep: San Agustin was the one left standing, making it a bit of an irony that it’s also the country’s oldest church.
Pedro Calungsod Church
Cebu City, Cebu
From a visiting martyr to a homegrown hero, Cebu’s Pedro Calungsod Church ditches traditional orientation - both Eastern and Western - to go for something uniquely bold and stark: its facade comes at you like a forest of one hundred walls. A stone’s throw away from SM Seaside City, this Sy project is as contemporary as SM’s posher developments with maze-like corridors, tall glass windows, and a sunken garden for pilgrims.
If you need a bit of historical context to understand San Agustin’s World Heritage reputation, you only have to look at the Miag-ao Church to get it. Built back in the 1790’s, the church is undoubtedly among the country’s most visually striking: the Coconut Tree representing the tree of the Tree of Life, St. Christopher dressed in local clothing carrying the Christ Child, various European saints in niches flanked by papaya, coconut, and palm trees. It’s hard to imagine that something that looks so ornate and delicate actually served another purpose: the church was designed to be heavily fortified and defended the people from invaders from the sea.
St. Andrew Kim Parish
If visually striking churches is your thing, St. Andrew Kim Parish looks unlike any other Catholic Church in the country. Named after Korea’s martyred first priest who actually studied in Bulacan in the 1800’s, the church illustrates the cultural fusion in the grandest way possible. Neo-classical columns? Check. Spires? Check. Pagodas? Check. A spire in the shape of a pagoda held up by neo-classical columns? Triple-check. Add to this the tropical landscaping and you’re bound to realize just how diverse Philippine Catholicism - and Philippine Heritage with it - can be if we chose to encompass all of it.
If it’s the inside that you’re looking for, then Paete Church is a veritable treasure chest for fans of sacred art (termite damage notwithstanding.) Given the town’s reputation for skilled craftsmen and artisans, it should be no wonder that this grand tradition is reflected on the Church’s ornamentation. It is also an exhibition space for old Paete families to display generations-old religious heirlooms during Lent. One memory these families may find painful though is how the church was used as a dungeon and torture house during the Japanese Occupation.
Callao Cave Chapel
It’s not the country’s oldest church but the caves the Callao Cave Chapel was set up in have history that rivals Palawan’s Tabon by 20,000 years. It shouldn’t be a surprise that when human beings first settled in the Philippines, they’d choose to settle there: the Callao Cave complex is gorgeous with majestically formed chambers and natural skylights that open out to the forest above. As far as worshipping the Creator goes, it was a great choice to put-up pews in a pre-created Church.
National Shrine of the First Mass
Limasawa Island, Southern Leyte
We end our trip around the islands where it all started: the Island of Limasawa, where Ferdinand Magellan’s crew celebrated the first mass in the Philippines, Easter Sunday in 1521. There’s no great structure there to go into, no important feat of engineering or craftsmanship. There is only a small chapel in the forest overlooking the sea. Looking down at it from Google Maps (because Google Street View hasn’t even reached the island yet,) you might find yourself meditating on what those 500 years of Christianity has meant for the Philippines.
Some might contend that it was all a colonial exploit, a European incursion into an Asian civilization that had every right to be left alone. Some have contended all the way to the opposite extreme of an argument to say that bringing Catholicism to the Philippines meant colonialism was a good thing that never should have ended. Most of us who are Christian Filipinos will likely find ourselves in the uncomfortable middle, “celebrating” five hundred years of contact with Spain with all the aplomb and enthusiasm of going to one’s ex’s wedding. That said, I do hope weaving through these seven churches gave a bit more context to that conflict. Not that it has made it any easier: Faith and Progress, Colonialism and National Identity, the Universal and the Local, the Past and the Future: they are in our churches as they are in ourselves. I personally cannot wait to visit them again.