Thursday, November 25, 2004

Was the First Mass in Homonhon?

In her recent column at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Bambi Harper refers to an article by Percy Hill that was published in 1934 in Philippine Magazine. The article writes about Gil Piamontes de Alazerna who in 1934 found at the civil archives in Intramuros an old chest locked with a rusted padlock with the following inscription: “Opus Excellentisimus Alfonsus Fazardus Tensae Gobernatum Philipinum Insularium. Diversae et venales res.” Among the contents was a document about the landing Magellan in Suluan (Homonhon) and the treaty with the natives. Describing the geographical circumstances of the area, the document notes in detail the composition of The Trinidad, Magellan’s flagship and narrates in good detail Magellan’s exchanges with the local chieftain by the name of Garas-Garas. Of especial interest is the portion of the document that reads: “They also agreed to sign a treaty of peace that was done on March 19 when most of the Spaniards disembarked. Mass was celebrated and later a tall cross was planted near the shore. Garas-Garas, Inaroyan and the other chiefs signed the treaty of friendship that began: "In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen. In the island of Suluan this 19th day of March 1521, before me, Notary and Scribe of the Expedition sent by His Majesty, the King of Spain, I, Leon de Espeleta hereby testify…”


If this document is authentic, then we have documentary evidence that the first mass in the Philippines was held in Homhonhon and not in Limasawa as history books account until today. Quoting Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian member of the Magellan expedition who served as the official chronicler (who also wrote an eyewitness account of the expedition in his book “Primo Vioggio Intorno al Globo Terracqueo, published in Italian in 1800), Fr. Miguel A. Bernad, SJ, in his article “The site of the First Mass in the Philippines” strongly maintains that the first mass was celebrated in Limasawa in Southern Leyte. He translates Pigafetta thus: “Early on the morning of Sunday, the last of March, and Easter-Day, the captain-general sent the priest with some men to prepare the place where the mass was to be said, together with the interpreter to tell the king that we were not going to land in order to dine with him, but to say mass…The mass was offered up. The kings went forward to kiss the cross as we did, but they did not offer the sacrifice. When the body of our lord was elevated, they remained on their knees and worshipped Him with clasped hands. The ships fired all their artillery at once when the body of Christ was elevated, the sign having been given from the shore with muskets. After the conclusion of mass, some of our men took communion.”


Some historians, however, are currently debating whether indeed that mass on Easter Sunday was held in Limasawa or in Masao in Butuan Bay, Agusan del Norte. Whether in Masao or in Limasawa, the account of Pigafetta can never be desputed. But was it the first mass? Pigafetta does not say. The group of Magellan rested in Homonhon for about a week—on a Lenten season. The priests in the expedition would have been very uncomfortable not to have celebrated the Holy Eucharist once they landed in Samar after months of sailing in rough seas. Our own SamareƱo historians have been very silent about this. This is the time to do their homework and speak up.

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