Historians favor Limasawa as site of Philippines’ first Easter Sunday Mass

LEYTE. Dr. Rolando Borrinaga of the University of the Philippines (UP)-School of Health Sciences in Palo, Leyte. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Rolando Borrinaga)
LEYTE. Dr. Rolando Borrinaga of the University of the Philippines (UP)-School of Health Sciences in Palo, Leyte. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Rolando Borrinaga)

MONTHS before the 500th anniversary of the introduction of Christianity in the country, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) finally settled the official site of the 1521 Easter Sunday Mass by favoring Limasawa in Southern Leyte instead of Masao in Butuan City.

In a statement released on Wednesday, August 19, 2020, NHCP announced that it signed on July 15, 2020, Resolution No. 2, adopting the report submitted by the six-man panel of scholars led by historian and National Artist for Literature Dr. Resil Mojares who reviewed the issue surrounding the site of the 1521 Easter Sunday Mass in the Philippines.

“The panel was convened in response to the requests from various institutions, including the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), even as the anticipation of the Filipino Catholic faithful had just begun for the 500th anniversary of the introduction of Christianity in the Philippines,” the commission said.

NHCP is mandated to “actively engage in the settlement or resolution of controversies or issues relative to historical personages, places, dates and events” based on Republic Act No. 10086 or Strengthening People’s Nationalism Act of 2009.

Monsignor Oscar Cadayona of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Maasin, which includes Limasawa, expressed his elation over the official government pronouncement, saying: “We are so happy that our proofs - of the veracity of our claims that our Limasawa is really the site--were not dismantled by those who supported other sites.”

“It really inspires us, the bishop, clergy and the lay faithful to work hard to promote the site as a sacred place of encounter between God and man. With this development, we are optimistic that the Filipino people will rally behind us as we build structures there as concrete signs of gratitude to the Almighty for the gift of faith received in Limasawa,” said Cadayona in a report from Catholic news site Licas.news.

While several activities related to the 500th year anniversary were canceled due to the coronavirus disease pandemic, Cadayona urged all the Catholics to “do what we can in order to celebrate this 5th centenary of our faith.”

“Let us not allow this fear of the pandemic dim the light of faith we received in Limasawa,” he added.

Meanwhile, Dr. Rolando Borrinaga, representing the pro-Limasawa side, was equally elated over the decision.

“Finally got this info that has been withheld from me for long,” said the 63-year-old professor of the University of the Philippines (UP)-School of Health Sciences Palo, Leyte.

Borrinaga has been with the premier state university for 40 years and served as a faculty member for 37 years.

“The decision of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) provides sweet vindication for my nearly 20-year-old research and advocacy that Mazaua = Limasawa and that the 1521 Easter Sunday Mass (previously termed as the ‘First Mass’) was held in the vicinity of the present Barangay Triana in western Limasawa, Southern Leyte, and not in Butuan in Mindanao,” Borrinaga wrote on his Facebook account.

Borrinaga’s relentless advocacy also led to the return of the historic Bells of Balangiga to the Philippines in December 2018.

Latest ruling

Dr. Rene Escalante, chairman of NHCP and executive director of the National Quincentennial Committee, said they revisited the issue surrounding the site of the 1521 Easter Sunday Mass in the Philippines as part of its mandate to resolve historical controversies.

He cited Antonio Pigafetta, the chronicler of the Magellan-Elcano expedition, who wrote that the first mass happened on March 31, 1521, in a place he identified as Mazaua.

In a statement, Escalante disclosed that the issue as to the exact location of the First Catholic Mass was resolved by the forerunner of the NHCP, the National Historical Institute (NHI), through two panels of experts: the first headed by former Supreme Court Justice Emilio Gancayco (1995) and the second by historian Dr. Benito J. Legarda (2008).

Both panels ruled that the site of the 1521 Easter Sunday Mass was in Limasawa Island, now a municipality in Southern Leyte.

However, the reopening of the historical controversy happened in 2018 when NHCP “received a number of requests from various institutions, including the CBCP, to reexamine the earlier decisions of the NHI.”

“These requests were made in the light of some claims that there were new primary sources and pieces of evidence that surfaced recently which were not taken into consideration by the previous panels. NHCP also saw the necessity of reopening a new inquiry because of the forthcoming commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the introduction of Christianity in the Philippines in 2021,” the commission added.

In November 2018, the commission created a new panel of experts “who reexamined the historical controversy and reviewed the findings of the previous panels for a year.”

The Mojares panel includes national and internationally recognized historians, paleographers, and translators: Dr. Danilo Gerona (Partido State University), Dr. Francis Navarro (Ateneo de Manila University), Dr. Carlos Madrid Álvarez-Piñer (University of Guam), and Fr. Antonio Francisco de Castro, SJ (Loyola School of Theology, representing CBCP), with historian Dr. Jose Victor Torres (De La Salle University) as the panel’s Secretary-General.

Aside from de Castro, CBCP was also represented by other church historians as observers of the panel’s proceedings like Fr. Milan Ted Torralba (CBCP Episcopal Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church); Fr. Emil Quilatan, OAR (Archivist, Augustinian Recollect Archives); Fr. Amado Tumbali, SJ (Archivist, Archives of the Philippine Province of the Society of Jesus); Fr. Antolin Uy, SVD (historian), and Fr. Albert Flores (Archivist, Manila Archdiocesan Archives and Museum).

According to the commission, no one in the panel came from either Agusan del Norte or Southern Leyte “so that their decision would be based primarily on evidence and sound analysis, and not on regional or territorial biases.”

The panel used primary and secondary sources, including a high-resolution digital copy of the extant Pigafetta manuscripts from foreign institutions, to back its research.

They traveled to the actual contested areas in Butuan and Limawasa and listened to the two proponents as they presented their pieces of evidence and arguments to support their claims.

“The panel unanimously agreed that the evidence and arguments presented by the pro-Butuan advocates are not sufficient and convincing enough to warrant the repeal or reversal of the ruling on the case by the NHI. Hence, the panel recommended that Limasawa Island, Southern Leyte, be sustained as the site of the 1521 Easter Sunday Mass,” the historians said in its conclusion.

Escalante said the panel’s report was also reviewed by the history department in different universities, professional organizations, historical associations, along with experts in geology and cartography, who agreed on their findings and found it “acceptable and scholarly done following the rigors of the discipline.”

The other members of the commission are Abraham Sakili, Emmanuel Calairo, Earl June Paul Cleope, Lino Dizon, Cesar Gilbert Adriano, Victorino Mapa Manalo, Jeremy Barns and Restituto Aguilar.


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