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For Filipino Catholics, one of the most important historical sites to visit in relation to the 500-year history of Christianity in the Philippines is the place where the first Mass was celebrated, the first time the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ were made physically present in the Archipelago. If we consult Wikipedia, the answer is as follows: “The first documented Catholic Mass in the Philippines was held on March 31, 1521, Easter Sunday. It was conducted by Father Pedro de Valderama of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition along the shores of what was referred to in the Journals of Antonio Pigafetta as “Mazaua”. Today, this site is widely believed by many historians and the government to be Limasawa, off the tip of Southern Leyte. However, until at least the 19th century, the prevailing belief was that the first mass was held in Butuan. This belief is still maintained by some, who assert that the first mass was held instead at Masao, Butuan. To end the conflict about the location of the first Mass, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) panel adapted the recommendation and 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 National Historical Institute (the NHCP’s forerunner). It is further strengthened by the evidence presented by the Limasawa proponent that it was only after 22 years, in 1543—when an expedition led by Ruy Lopez de Villalobos landed in Mindanao.
As I will explain further in this article, the controversy has not ended. There are still pro-Butuan advocates who are moving heaven and earth to pile up more evidences to disprove the LImasawa defenders. Before proceeding, however, to present the evidences being currently used to reverse the NHCP decision, let me suggest a practical and mutually beneficial way to resolve the conflict. Two years ago, I attended an international conference at the Saxum Conference Center in Jerusalem. A few kilometers from the site of the Conference Center was the famous Emmaus, the hometown of the two disciples whom Jesus Christ met on their way home. They were completely depressed because of what they considered the utter failure of Jesus Christ to accomplish His mission. According to the Gospel, the story took place in the evening of the day of the Resurrection of Jesus. This means that when Our Lord broke bread at the end of the episode, He celebrated the First Mass after the Last Supper. This is an interesting coincidence with the case of the First Mass in the Philippine. When Jesus broke bread, “their eyes are opened,” (St. Luke 24: 13 -35) and they recognized Him as the resurrected Christ. Jesus immediately vanished. Cleophas and his friend then hastened back to Jerusalem to carry the news to the other disciples.
What struck me was that after more than 2,000 years, the site of Emmaus has not yet been definitely determined. Like the first Mass in the Philippines, there are contending venues. Among them is the one closest to where I stayed while attending the conference. It is called Emmaus Nicopolis (c. 160 stadia from Jerusalem). This is the oldest identification. The guides to pilgrims to the Holy Land, however, mention other possible sites. They are Kiryat Anavim (66 stadia from Jerusalem on the carriage road to Jaffa); Coloniya (36 stadia on the carriage road to Jaffa); el-Kubelbeh (63 stadia, on the Roman road to Lydda); Artas (60 stadia from Jerusalem); and Khurbet al-Khamasa (86 stadia on the Roman road to Eleutheropolis). The identification is complicated by the fact that New Testament manuscripts list at least three different distances between Jerusalem and Emmaus in the Gospel of St. Luke. This diversity of opinions reminds me of the need to still consider the views of the pro-Butuan advocates. By not settling definitively the venue for the first Mass in the Philippines, we can actually, like the case of Jerusalem, benefit from pilgrims still being interested in visiting the other contending sites beside Emmaus Nicopolis. Even if Limasawa is considered the most probable venue for the first Mass in the Philippines, there could still be many tourists who would want to visit Butuan in Mindanao, the other possible site. This would lead to a bigger volume of tourists traveling from Leyte to Butuan. I think this would be a practical way of resolving the debate. Keeping the probability of Butuan as the site of the First Mass in the Philippines could also change the impression of some that the population of Mindanao is predominantly Muslim. The truth is Christians still outnumber Muslims in that second biggest island of the Philippines.
In the subsequent paragraphs I will summarize the content of a book written by a medical doctor turned amateur historian because of his passion to disprove the Limasawa hypothesis. Let me make a disclosure. The author of the book, which is entitled “Limasawa Hoax: A Tragedy in Philippine History,” is Dr. Potenciano Malvar, the husband of a first cousin of mine, Lulu Comcom. I would like the reader, however, to just focus on the force of his argumentation and the historical data that he presents in his book, which I admit could have been titled more diplomatically. In my more than fifty years of being in the academe, I have never encountered a scholar or a person writing a doctoral dissertation who has spent more time and personal financial resources in digging facts all over the world to prove his hypothesis. Dr. Malvar did not confine himself to the different accounts of Antonio Pigafetta and Francisco Albo. He gathered substantial collection of books in History related to the life and voyages of Ferdinand Magellan. He travelled far and wide. He went to Sabrosa, Portugal, the birthplace of Magellan, to Vicenza and Milan in Italy. He then proceeded to the United States, visited the Boston Library where the Italian version of Pigafetta Manuscript can be sourced and then to Beineke Library in Yale University in Connecticut, for the French version of the Pigafetta Manuscript. He also traveled to Seville and Sanlucar de Barameda in Spain. While in Sanlucar, he found ground zero, where the Guadalquivir River is now positioned three kilometers away to the West of the Castle of Medina of Sidonia. The river in 1521 was where all ships paid their tributes as they went in and out Seville.
Pigaffeta described their passing through Seville as follows: “At length we arrived at a Castle belonging to the Duke of Medina of Sidonia called San Lucar, which is a port by which to enter the Ocean Sea. You enter it on the west wind and depart from it on the east wind.” A similar situation prevailed in Mazaua in 1521. Mazaua lost its identify as an island since it had fused with the mainland and eventually became a barangay of Butuan City. Providentially, portion of this former island constitutes the land area of today’s Bancasi Airport of Butuan. This facilitates the journey of pilgrims and tourists who are interested in this place as a contender for the site of the first Mass in the Philippines.
The main criticism by Dr. Malvar of the Limasawa advocates is that they failed to take into account the Orders, Commands, Edicts and Agreements between King Charles of Spain and Magellan and Faeliro. These documents demonstrated clearly the real intention of the King in commissioning the voyage of the Armada de Molucca, which was to look for the land of Spice. The Limasawa advocates also mistakenly believed that the 9 2/3 degree latitude was the targeted destination. Pigafetta’s logging at this latitude was a distractionary tactic to conceal the true location of that island of Spice from other persons, explorers, navigators and traders. To be continued.