Ren Aguila and I had an interesting discussion on early Christianity in Asia. And naturally this led to some talk on when the first Christians arrived in the Philippines.
Conventional history says that the first Christians came with Magellan in 1521. Here we can't contest for there was Antonio Pigafetta to record all of that in a journal which became a book. It is the first rather accurate (and thus modern) depiction of a voyage to Asia. The earlier works like the one of Marco Polo may be viewed as fantastic. Sceptics say that Marco Polo went to China. mentioned the use of paper money and yet did not even mention the Great Wall (and even dumplings they say)! Pigafetta's journal's mention the Easter Sunday Mass (March 31) celebrated in the Philippines. This "first Mass" (which is the first act of Christian worship in the Philippines) is a bone of contention. Where exactly in the Philippines was the first Mass celebrated?
Pigafetta records an island called "Mazaua" as the site. The problem is that there is an island in Leyte called "Limasawa" and a place near Butuan as "Masaua". Pigafetta mentions a port with many boats. Today's Limasawa has no anchorage and definitely is not a busy port. Butuan has been proven by archeologists as an ancient trading port (the oldest balanghai boats were dug up there). But Butuan is not an island at all. However it could have been in 1521 since it sits on a river delta.
I won't delve much into this controversy that has the Philippine National Historical Institute in a bind. But there are other places in the Philippines that claim as the site of the first act of Christian worship. The most famous of this is Bolinao, Pangasinan. This northern Luzon town famous for its "bagoong", powdery white sand beaches and as the site of the University of the Philippines marine laboratory, claims to be as the site of the first Mass in the Philippines. In front of the Spanish colonial Church of St James is a marker documenting this event.
Bolinao townspeople claim that Blessed Odorico of Pordenone landed in Bolinao, Pangasinan and celebrated the Mass in 1324, one hundred ninety seven years before Magellan's priest celebrated his in Mazaua. Odorico is claimed to have baptized the natives and made converts. The marker in the church plaza was donated by citizens of Pordenone, Italy.
There is no doubt that Odorico went to China, India, perhaps Tibet and Southeast Asia as a missionary. There is documentation to prove this This missionary effort happened during the last period of Eastern Christian flowering in Asia. There is a lot of research that now proves that the Nestorian Church had an extensive presence in China and India.
However, there is no definite proof the Odorico landed in the Philippines. Of course the word "Philippines" had never been coined then! But the historical accounts say that Odorico visited a place called "Thalamasin" somewhere in Southeast Asia. The name "Pangasinan" refers to the widespread activity of making salt, thus the province is literally "the land of Salt". However it is claimed that the creation myth of the Ilocanos of Luzon, "Angalo ken Aran"(put into writing by Godofredo Reyes) mentions "Thalamasin" as a place name in what is now Pangasinan!
Is Thalamasin Pangasinan? The historians will have to dig out the documentation. This is where the Episcopal presence in the Philippines intersects with these controversies. The Episcopalian lay missionary Dr William Henry Scott, (1921-1993) fondly known as "Scotty" is considered as the authority on pre-colonial Philippine history and the history of the Cordilleras. Scott spent most of his time in Sagada and taught for a time at the University of the Philippines. Scott did his PhD at the University of Santo Tomas where he was supervised by another eminent Filipino historian, Fr Horacio de la Costa. Scott's dissertation demolished the historicity of the Code of Kalantiaw establishing that it is not precolonial but dates back to 1914. He also concluded that there is no evidence that a Datu Kalatiaw ever existed. In his study of the Maragtas, he concluded that while Bornean datus may have arrived in Panay, the account preserved the memory of an actual event as an oral history.
Scott's "Discovery of the Igorots" remains as the definitive work on Cordillera history but Scott's essays on Igorot religion and belief as this culture meets Christianity is important reading for any missionary. I like what he writes in "Worship in Igorot Life"
"The practice of religion as a literal way of life is precisely what any Christian body must attain if it is to be a Christian community at all., and such a Christian way of life should flow from the Christian faith and not vice versa".... "Therefore however imperative it may appear to modify the pagan's daily conduct out of allegiance to Christian charity or dogma, the stones with which to build a new way of life dare not be confused with food for a children hungering after the Living Bread"
There is still much to learn about the first time Christianity was planted in the Philippines. It is not a far out idea that the first Mass may have been Eastern Christian rather than Roman Catholic. Nestorians or Malabar Christians may have wandered onto Pangasinan's white beaches for the islands were trading with Asia. We have archeological evidence that there were Hindu and Buddhist missions in the precolonial Philippines. We have written accounts of Islamic missionaries. So it is not far fetched if there were Eastern Christians. But like Scott would challenge historians, find the documentation first.