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12:05 AM April 8th, 2012

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By: Luis H. Francia, April 8th, 2012 12:05 AM

NEW YORK—In 1595 Padre Francisco Blancas de San Jose, a young Dominican missionary from Spain, was assigned to Las Islas Filipinas by way of Mexico, barely two decades after the establishment of Manila as the capital of the fledgling, and still vulnerable, colonial state. Blancas spent ten years in Bataan, and developed a reputation as a skilled preacher and mediator between our forebears and the religious personnel. Designated in 1614 as procurator in Spain for the Philippines, he died while returning to the continent for this appointment.

Many of his sermons have been reprinted in their original Tagalog by Ateneo de Manila, with an introduction by Fr. José Maria Francisco, S.J. Apparently, Blancas had a gift for other tongues, for, according to Fr. Francisco, “he soon learned Tagalog and Chinese, and proceeded to write several grammatical works on Tagalog and catechetical books in Tagalog.” He also started the compilation of the Vocabulario, “which Jesuits Noceda and Sanlucar finished in 1754.”

I have been familiarizing myself with some of these sermons, by assisting Maria Aguilar, a former student of mine now going for her doctorate in Divinity, to translate two 17th century sermons by Blancas. If Blancas can be thought of as representative of the then pedagogical and missionary approach, it seems clear to me that such homilies early on helped shape the current tenor and manner in which Catholicism today is practiced in the islands. The sermons Maria chose appropriately enough were delivered during the Quadragesima, or first Sunday of Lent. As noted by Fr. Francisco, in these sermons, Blancas speaks “as if to children.”

Blancas uses the New Testament story of Christ being thrice tempted by the devil while meditating and fasting in the desert, in preparation for his foray into the world. El diablo wished to discern whether the Nazarene was indeed the Son of God. At this point, Blancas notes, Jesus did not as yet wish to make manifest his Divinity, emphasizing instead his humanity. Blancas identifies the devil as the preeminent one, Lucifer (and here I was surprised that the Dominican used his pre-fall name, “The Bearer of Light,” rather than Satan, taken after the fall from God’s favor). First he asks Jesus to transform rocks into bread, to which the latter replies, Man does not live by bread alone but needs to heed the wishes of God. Next, the devil transports Jesus to the highest temple in Jerusalem, and challenges him to let himself fall, for if he were the Son of God, then angels will catch him in flight. To which Christ calmly replies that it is foolish to provoke the Lord without cause, and (a touch of wry humor here), why jump when there are stairs one can take to descend?

Finally, Lucifer brings Jesus to the top of the highest peak in the region and describes the kingdoms, Rome and Persia included, and all their treasures that are in them. All these, Lucifer says, will be yours, if you prostrate yourself and worship me. To which, Christ (in a huff?), banishes him from his sight by saying, Get thee hence, Devil! At which point a host of angels materializes and bring Christ back to the desert and there feed him even as they worship him. By then, of course, the devil knows the Nazarene is indeed the Son of God (though Blancas makes no mention of this).

One of the points Blancas makes is that Christ desires that all Christians see in his resistance to the devil’s temptations (mga tucso), an example of a human besting the wily devil, and that even before Christ assumes the mantle of the Son of God, he demonstrate through his human flesh how to stave off the devil’s blandishments. The Indios can and should emulate his example, as soldiers emulate a brave and noble captain, by leading lives that imitate Christ’s. Blancas is quick to add they are not literally to go into the desert (for there is none in the archipelago), or the equivalent wilderness—the primeval forest, or mountains.

The missionary strategy was to have the converts live abajo de las campanas, or under the bells, in town, so that they would be under the control and influence of the friars (as well as the state, the civil and religious spheres being as they would be throughout colonial rule practically synonymous), attend Mass and receive the sacraments regularly, and respond quickly when summoned by the ringing of church bells.

Using the analogy of Eve being sent to tempt Adam, Blancas emphasizes that it is the body that the devil uses most often to tempt us—and here, it is implied that the female body is a prime source of corruption—and that therefore the body is the battleground where morality and immorality contend. Such a notion persists today, of course, in its most simplistic manner, where the natural desires of the body are seen too often to lead to wickedness, hence the suspicious views of a conservative hierarchy on sex and matters pertaining to it. Hence, too, the need to discipline the body and even more importantly to daily pray to God, for strength and bravery in combat, for without his help (and that of his church), one will inevitably be led into evil.

One other lesson Blancas wishes his congregation to learn that I found relevant to certain modern-day Lenten rituals, is that it is essential to imitate Christ. What are the acts of self-flagellation that one witnesses in public squares and highways during Holy Week, or those of individuals having themselves crucified yearly but literal and bloody reenactments of the earthly sufferings of Christ? I wonder how far back in colonial history such mimicry extends. By the early 17th century, had such practices started to emerge, and what would have been the reactions of missionaries like Blancas?

Such sermons may have been uttered centuries before but I doubt if they are too dissimilar to what is being said today in Philippine churches. In them we can discern some of the roots of the Spanish medieval Catholicism that still inflects (and infects) Philippine Catholicism, where the operative principle is fear. At the same time that I have been working with Maria, and soon, with Michael Coroza, a poet and professor of Filipino at the Ateneo, I am also rereading Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and imagining Blancas preaching in Tagalog (a Tagalog by the way full of rhetorical twists and repetitions and an often difficult syntax), reminded me of Padre Damaso preaching to the good folk of San Diego first in Spanish (as the audience included some other Spanish clerics) and then in Tagalog. The sermon is as long-winded and gassy as the speaker, and full of imprecations and dire warnings. People fall asleep; they whisper; one man hides in the confessional; and a young man has the temerity to leave the church through the sacristy (the other church doors having been locked) in full view of the red-faced Damaso.

I couldn’t help but smile when first reading about the locked doors. Thankfully the practice (if in fact it had been customary) was no longer observed when I was still a regular churchgoer. When the priest was about to give his sermon, many young men, myself included, would discreetly exit and congregate outside to shoot the breeze. Perhaps we had by then grown tired of being treated as children, and perhaps we all had a sense of déjà vu, knowing exactly what platitudes were to be trotted out.

As interesting as Blancas’s sermons are for what they tell us about the vernacular and the implied cultural referents, they also bear out the fact that over the centuries little has changed in the way the church hierarchy in the Philippines treats its faithful—still as mindless children—or in its favorite tactic to silence any critic—the threat of eternal damnation—or in its narrow portrayal of human needs and desires as sinful. Time and fiction may separate Blancas, Damaso, and modern-day Philippine Catholicism but little else does. The realities these two friars represent are still as solid as mortal flesh.

Copyright L. H. Francia 2012

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