Filipino Catholics: The missing 72 million

Ricardo Saludo

Ricardo Saludo

Quick question: How many Filipino Catholics go to church? In his Powerpoint presentation on this Year of the Laity 2014, Salesian priest and leading Filipino theologian Francis Gustilo flashed the disturbing, if not alarming answer: only about one in every seven Filipinos baptized in the faith—13 million of the estimated 85 million faithful—are church-goers.

Absent at masses and other liturgical activities are an estimated 72 million souls counted as Catholics, but missing in action, so to speak. In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis made special mention of these nominal believers as priorities for evangelization.

“Ordinary parish ministry,” instructed the Holy Father, should reach out to “members of the faithful who preserve a deep and sincere faith, expressing it in different ways, but seldom taking part in worship.” Many readers may find some of their family members, particularly the young, in this group.

Another mission thrust, Pope Francis added, should be “the baptized whose lives do not reflect the demands of baptism,” as his predecessor Benedict XVI told the 2012 Synod of Bishops. Those sisters and brothers in the faith “lack a meaningful relationship to the Church and no longer experience the consolation born of faith.”

Reach out to the ‘unchurched’

As a current member of the International Theological Commission advising the Supreme Pontiff, Fr. Gustilo, professor of Fundamental Theology and of Spirituality at the Don Bosco Center of Studies in Parañaque, would have read those papal words and perhaps commented on them as part of his ITC work.

In his talk at Our Lady of Pentecost Parish Church in Loyola Heights, Quezon City, last Thursday, however, the Pope’s namesake was concerned less about the theological permutations of Catholics not practicing the faith, but the needed actions to bring those “unchurched” millions, as he put it, back to Jesus Christ and His Church.

It’s not an easy task. With about 6,000 priests and 12,000 nuns in the country, Fr. Gustilo calculated that he and his fellow religious would need to woo back to church 4,000 less committed Catholics each. That’s about one lapsed believer every day for the next eleven years.

But the Don Bosco man had a far better idea: Why not harness the 13 million faithful who do go to church in the mission of evangelizing the 72 million who don’t? Clearly, Fr. Gustilo was paying close attention to the first major document crafted and commented upon by the ITC for Pope Francis.

The paramount mission of all believers

Mobilizing every Catholic for evangelization was exactly what the Holy Father advocated in Evangelii Gaudium. All the faithful must join hands in the mission of preaching the Gospel and bringing the world closer to God. Quoting John Paul II’s 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio (Mission of the Redeemer) in parts, Francis declared:

“John Paul II asked us to recognize that ‘there must be no lessening of the impetus to preach the Gospel’ to those who are far from Christ, ‘because this is the first task of the Church’. Indeed, ‘today missionary activity still represents the greatest challenge for the Church’ and ‘the missionary task must remain foremost’.

“What would happen if we were to take these words seriously? We would realize that missionary outreach is paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity. Along these lines the Latin American bishops stated that we ‘cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings’; we need to move ‘from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry’.”

In sum, the paramount activity of all Catholics is to proclaim the Gospel through their lives and words, and bring fellow human beings to Jesus Christ in the Church, so that all souls may be saved.

Evangelization begins at home

So how do 13 million church-going Filipino Catholics bring back the 72 million unchurched? Fr. Gustilo’s game plan is to start at home.

That’s where he himself began: in his own family home, where his older brother’s family lived together with their parents. While Kuya was himself an active member of two religious movements, Fr. Gustilo observed that there was no belen or Holy Family scene at home in December. “There was a Christmas tree, but no belen,” he recalled. Moreover, as in countless other households, especially among the affluent, the children were more interested in Facebook than faith books.

Fr. Gustilo suggested that the whole household have weekly “liturgical Bible study” of the coming Sunday mass readings, initially led by a colleague of his. His parents and his brother obliged. After the expected reluctance in the first few weeks, the Thursday evening sessions stirred the family’s interest.

And enthusiasm: Kuya’s youngest son wanted the Bible sessions moved to Monday, so they have more days before the coming Sunday mass to share insights with others. Having received the wisdom and joy of God’s word, the family wants to share it.

Pope Francis recounts that very experience of joy in the Gospel, as his exhortation is titled: “Thanks solely to this encounter—or renewed encounter—with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption . . . Here we find the source and inspiration for all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?”

Eight years to touch six souls

Last Thursday’s talk on the Year of the Laity is part of the Philippine Church’s preparations for the 500th anniversary in 2021 of Christianity’s arrival in the archipelago. In 1521, Ferdinand Magellan’s three religiously christened Spanish ships, the Trinidad, the Concepcion, and the Victoria (named after a Marian church), brought Christ to Cebu.

Friars baptized its ruler Rajah Humabon, his queen Hara Amihan, and 800 subjects. As a christening gift, Magellan gave her a wooden statue of the Holy Child Jesus. Priests also celebrated the country’s first mass on nearby Limasawa island. Even after the Spaniards left, Cebuanos venerated the Santo Niño image, as colonizer Miguel Lopez de Legazpi found in 1565, and celebrated today in the Sinulog festival.

In the years toward 2021, the Church strives for renewed vigor, sanctity, relevance and evangelical zeal. And one of the best ways for believers to mark the quinticentennial is for each one to bring six less devout Catholics back to church over the coming eight years. And with God blessing our efforts, the 72 million will again be embracing Christ. Amen.


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  1. Why can it not be accepted that belief in a supernatural being is declining as more and more people develop an alternative understanding of the world and universe we live in. The assumption that baptised babies are somehow destined to become practicing Catholics is a nonsense, as the babies had no part in the decision.
    Couple this with the observable fact that many of those who attend church do not practice Christian values in their own lives, and it is no surprise that religeous affiliation is declining fast—and long may it continue to do so!

  2. i was a catholic before. but when i read the Bible and watch evangelists in the televisions i was surprised that i was in a wrong side. e.i read the Bible from cover to cover it didn’t mention any issue about rosary prayers/praying with virgin Mary to save your souls. pls. don’t get offended this is just for me and we have freedom of choice. thanks God bless us all.

  3. evangelization is not the problem in the Philippines. the problem is why almost all catholics in the phils no longer go to mass it is because our churchmen here wants to go back to old days w/c is during the spanish period were friars is more powerful that the head of state…this set of thinking of our bishops and friars have alienated the majority of middle class catholic to go to church and here mass every sunday. kaya ang nagsisimba na lang ay yung mga utu-uto na karamihan ay mahihirap at yung mga banal na aso at santong kabayo ng mayayaman…

  4. In the real world, evangelization work is a very tough undertaking. The practicing catholic faithfuls are arrayed against the forces brandishing the ideology of crass materialism. It’s ironic that many of these individuals are baptized catholics. What is lost in the firmament of material discourse is what is really our purpose in living in this finite world. There are so many distractions that block an individual’s view making him oblivious to the vision of salvation as taught by Jesus Christ. People populating the extremes of the social spectrum are the ones falling victims to the lure of materialism. The very rich don’t actively practice their faith anymore as they believe they have all they need in life. The extremely poor do not have the time to contemplate on their fate and just think of their daily survival as a human being. Evangelization work needs, whether direct or indirect, government support if society wants to remain cohesive. After all, each individual is part of the whole; each sector is part of the body politic. Government’s indifference on this basic tenet is causing the social maladies to haunt Philippine society today. As an unfortunate example, the Government, wittingly or unwittingly espoused the break up of the Filipino family by encouraging the parents to leave their family for work abroad instead of creating local employment.

  5. First off, Francis Gustilo is, properly speaking, not a ‘theologian’. He is a professor of ‘Salesianity’. But, of course, as with other RC priests, he ‘can’ teach ‘Fundamental Theology’. That’s what can be considered “some instruction in religion”, in particular, the catholic religion.
    Secondly, I find it interesting that priests (religious, in particular) like Francis (Gustilo) continue to think that the statistics he gathered seem to be simply a question of ‘bringing the unchurched milllions back to the church’. And, so, Francis essays to approach it with a strategy. And, some rather corny play of words such as with kids being more interested in ‘facebook’ rather than in faith books.
    These religious haven’t changed. It is striking that Francis and these so-called religious can’t put their finger on the aspect of the relevance of religion in this day and age. The priests, religious ‘guys’ and ‘gals’ should instead look at themselves and ask if they’ve done nothing but continue to be ‘medieval’ in their ways. If Francis and the other men and women in the cloth get it, the presence of a Christmas tree sans the belen, and the time spent on facebook instead of ‘faithbooks’ are actually ‘hints’. They are not challenges or stumbling blocks that need to be confronted.
    I’m pretty sure Francis is still good with ‘words’ – preaching, that is. But, ‘selling’ the ways of the church this time around is an altogether different ballgame.

  6. First, I would like to mention that Mr. Rene Q. Bas, in his Enthusiasms column in The Manila Times awakened me to this problem. He has written several times about this very issue. He has pointed out that if one-half of the Roman Catholic Filipinos went to church on Sundays instead of only at most 15% of the total, the existing churches would have to have Holy Masses every hour or four times more of the existing churches would have to be built.

    Second, I doubt if all the present churchgoers could be prevailed on to DO APOSTOLATE on the non-church going ones. I think only about one-fifth of the present churchgoing ones are real Catholics at heart and in their minds. Also, the four-fifths of the churchgoers, I observe from their behavior, don’t really care about the Church or their fellow Catholics. They have to be men and women of virtue to go out of their way to DO APOSTOLATE on their LUKEWARM or NOT REAL CATHOLICS co-religionists. These Catholics are the very people who vote for corrupt politicians. They were the ones who made Benigno Aquino III the President of the Philippines, who–more than the Protestant President Fidel Ramos–is pushing hard to destroy what remains of the Philippines’ Catholic ideological infrastructure by supporting the passage and enacting of the Reproductive Health Law over and against the objections of the hierarchy and the active and loyal pro-life Catholics.