The Philippines had long been considered a friarocracy. Not a theocracy, for rarely even did the commandments laid down by God followed to the letter, but also because the Church was not a monolithic entity. The Catholic religious orders competed against each other, and under the creed of saving the souls of the heathen and the barbaric, each claimed spheres of influence in Asia. Being a missionary required plenty of courage, and tolerance for hardship, quick wit and the ability to pacify quarrelsome natives. And if that fails – then they die, hacked to pieces in some far, wet, foreign land.
But the Philippines was long pacified ground, a Christian bulwark in the heart of Asia. From here, the Roman Catholic Church under the auspices of Spain made inroads into the rest of Asia, a holy dagger to the underbellies of China and Japan.
But at the same time, unlike the Spanish colonies in America, it was too far to command. Where the sword dallied, the book bravely strode into the leaf and bush. Even the government had good cause to be wary of upsetting the friars, for in the words of the Governor-general Weyler:
“ -these people seem to forget that we have established our authority in Luzon and the Visayas by the exercise of moral influence alone, backed up by the parish priest, for as none has such intimate and friendly relations with the people as the priest, so no one knows better than he what the people think, nor is any one better able to give them wise advice, to restrain them, and influence them for good. He alone can make Spaniards of them. By his office and position he is best fitted to make things easy for our minor officials in their different charges and districts.
Remove the control of Religion, and what do you do? You remove the Spanish element, forgetful of the fact that we have to depend on a native army whose dialect we do not understand, and who, in turn, understand not ours; that we have amongst us but a very limited number of Spanish soldiers—this is really how we are situated.
The natives are naturally simple and credulous, and of little discernment; and so are prone to superstition and idolatry, and can be easily imposed upon by any quick-witted impostor who is able to relate strange and wonderful stories. To prevent them being drawn away, the light of the true religion is absolutely necessary. “
Spanish had never really been the official language of the country, actual speakers comprising at most 10% of the population. Each curate ruled his parish like a little lord, once placed little could remove him. They had absorbed many civil responsibilities and authorities, being the only ones who could understand and command the indio. He acted as the intermediary between him and the world in matters both religious and secular.
In essence the indispensability of the fraile was very true, but also in the sense that the government had also given over to indolence and simply not bothered to set up a nationwide bureaucracy. Civil officers and soldiers rarely stayed in the country longer than a period of four years, the priest therefore became the solid, well-organized and dominant face of the regime for the natives.
In many barrios and parishes, the only Spanish authority that could be found was the priest. He could command the Guardia Civil, and interfere in any business conducted by the municipal tribunal. Their approval was required to even elect the gobernadorcillio of the town, without whom taxes could not be collected properly, and who had to mind the patronage they owed their position. Without sufficient shows of respect, a Filipino could not expect to advance his station.
Even so, many friars were beloved by their peoples.
It would not be well to paint all friars as evil, for as many of them indulged in the basest of urges, many more only indulged mildly, and even more earnestly believed they were working for the sake of holiness and improving the lives of their parishioners.
The lands and the numbers of the faithful was finite, however. Each order also had its own character, and thus different motives and approaches in exalting God via the labors of the Indio.
For the moment, let us speak of the Dominicans, who held most important the value of education as a tool for evangelization. They established many schools throughout the Philippines and Asia, and their only real competition in this pursuit was the Jesuits. However, with the expulsion of the Jesuits from all Spanish territories in 1768, it rested upon the Dominicans to hold the oldest continually functioning university in Asia – the Universidad de Santo Tomas in 1611, to be followed by the Colegio de San Juan de Letran in 1620.
Padre Sybila, who taught in San Juan de Letran, was a testament to the Dominican taste for winning arguments and taking a holistic view of the situation. Very early, after saying his mass, he left for the convent of his order, the Yglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo de Manila, only recently reconstructed from the earthquake of 1864.
There, Hernando Sybila met with an emaciated old priest with yellowing paperlike skin, who with thick furrowed brows and sunken nearly glassy eyes regarded him under the scapular of St. Dominic.
“God restore health to Your Reverence,” he greeted.
To which the old priest replied – “Ah, it you, Hernando! They advise me to take the operation at my age! No miracle under God nor the knife do I require. No need for it now! Ah, this country! This terrible country! I have suffered much; I have made many suffer; I settle my debts. I have naught to do now but to die.
Be warned, be warned at my expense, Hernando! Why have you come?”
“I have come to report upon the assignment you have given me.”
“Ah, so what of it?”
“We have been fed fables. The young man Ibarra has far exceeded my expectations.”
“High praise from you, how do you mean so?”
So Padre Sybila recounted the last night; of Ibarra deftly turning around Padre Damaso as a fool, his suspiciously detailed knowledge of the affairs of Europe, his distressing knowledge of matters of military nature, and most of all his uncanny energy and confidence.
“I cannot see it anything but the beginning of hostilities between Ibarra and Padre Damaso. The young man is far too intelligent not to find out what has transpired sooner or later.”
The sick old priest slowly pulled in his shaking hand into a claw, unable to muster the energy to make a fist. “Such a dangerous young man. We have always known the danger of educating them in Europe, and this is good. A strong ally such a mind would make, and an even better enemy.”
“Must it be so? He is engaged to the daughter of Capitan Tiago, who is educated in the convent of our sisters. He is rich, and he should not care to make enemies, lest it cost him his fortune and happiness.”
“Capitan Tiago, such a useful man, to treat all Spanish officials and priests equally… that is, with the simpering servility of the one who does not want to lose even a bit of his fortune and happiness. Could we own that young man body and soul? No, Europe has opened his eyes. If he can be mollified, then good, but he would better serve us as an enemy,” He took a deep labored breath. ”I far prefer the honesty of attacks to the silly praises of so-called friends. The most loyal of our subjects are those who have the least in life.”
“I fear it will not be so simple. Ibarra is a young man with some ability, he can ingratiate himself with the government just as easily.”
“Take this into account – “ the old priest wheezed, “that our power lasts only as long as people believe in it. And if we are attacked, then the government will think ‘they are being attacked because their enemies see in them the obstacle to their liberation – and so, let us work with them to preserve our power’.”
“And if the government listens to them? At times the government is too liberal…”
“They will not!” The government itself was chaos, alternating between liberalism and an iron fist, and the only rational outcome was suppression. The legitimacy of the monarchy that soundly defeated the First Spanish Republic could never be allowed to come in doubt. Even Governor-generals can easily be recalled.
“And if there appears a brave man to take what we have collected, bold and fearless-”
“Then woe unto him! Woe unto them! Better to face this uprising on our terms while it is early. We have worked too long towards our own ruin. We merely delay the end, much as I await the day this gruesome illness finishes my body. We have grown complacent, deluded into feeling secure, when all out there we are ridiculed. We must awake. Else here we will fall as we had fallen in Europe.”
“But – we will still have our haciendas, our real estate – surely, they will know, with these we maintain the colleges that train their children.”
“We will lose them too, as we have lost in Europe. Think of it, the yearly drive to arbitrarily increase the fees for the use of our lands has driven away the Indio to purchase land elsewhere, land too often as good or better than ours. We are beginning to decline –that is why we have not increased our burden; already the people grumble at our feet. And without our riches, we will be unable to prod the conscience.
Let us leave the others to settle their own accounts; let us keep what remains out our prestige, and soon we shall be appearing before God. Let us wash our hands. May God have mercy on our weakness…”
“There is chaos in the government. Spain has lost her colonies in South America one by one, now she must suppress revolt in Cuba, in Basque, in every land she owns. One more in the Philippines shall break her…”
“It must be a clean break, if it must happen at all. It will heal quicker. Best it be soon, that she wakes up to her vulnerability. And then, and then, Hernando – we will be tested! It must be a swift one, for the troops she sends here will be more needed elsewhere. Let the people remember the might of Spain, and they shall not soon again forget to be grateful.”
For however well-meaning as one might find them, all Spanish priests in the Philippines were Spaniards first and religious second. The thought of revolution, of separation from Spain, was exactly the same terrible thought in their minds as the destruction of four hundred years of labor and civilization.