The remote and faraway king

On  5 October 1682,  the Archbishop of Manila, Fray Phelippe Fernandez de  Pardourgently convened for a meeting the religious superiors of all the orders in the colony, but for  some strange reason, he expressly ignored the Cathedral Chapter, the  college of clerics who were his advisers. At issue was a royal decree dated 1677, wherein the King of Spain had ordered that the Holy Viaticum “be brought to the homes of sick  natives and other people (otras naciones).” However, five years had passed and the sick were still being brought to  church, in contradiction to the royal decree.

The king who was two  oceans away had no inkling  that his compassionate decree had become so contentious that it could not be implemented to the   letter. Someone must  have reported the “abuse”  in 1681, so  His Majesty Carlos II was so  incensed at  the ecclesiastics  in the Philippine colony for  not obeying his royal decree of 1677,  contrary to their sworn obligations, council directives, and Canon Law. Notwithstanding  the risk of the priests dying in the line of duty, they had to bring the  Holy Viaticum and Extreme Unction to the where the sick and the dying were found. He issued another   royal decree in  1681 which upheld the decision of the Synod Mexico (New Spain)  to strictly  comply with  the “Ritual of Bishop Don Juan de Palafox”  of Puebla. By 1683, the Holy Viaticum and Extreme Unction must be brought to the sick natives at their places of residence, wherever these may be.

The governor-general  (also known as captain-general) was ordered  “ to impose remedies” should the royal decree be disobeyed. Archbishop  Phelippe  Fernandez de Pardo received his own copy of the decree. As you know, the church and state were united in those days so the civil authority was also deeply involved in affairs of the church.  The king left it up to the two officials  to enforce the royal decrees  and to send him  reports of compliance.

In the 17th century, the fastest way to send official correspondence and personal  messages  to the king of Spain was through the Manila-Acapulco galleons which sailed twice a year carrying on the lucrative transpacific trade.  The often-perilous voyage took  months if not years. Sometimes the galleons were shipwrecked during storms or attacked by pirates. Once in Acapulco, sensitive correspondence  pertaining to church and state matters, or complaints and appeals of colonial subjects to the King had to cross Nueva Espana (Mexico)  on the back of mules to the port of Vera Cruz and  loaded on vessels that sailed to Spain. The delay could be fortuitous, but it was more often disastrous for the institutions and people concerned.

When the  archbishop of Manila convened the fathers provincial of the Augustinians, Jesuits, Dominicans and Recollects  his aim was to   ask them to submit their written opinions regarding the  royal decrees  of 1677 and 1681,  and  to submit  proposals as to  how they could best obey and  comply.  The position papers of the orders did not differ much in content. Let us look at what the Jesuits had to say: “ To bring the Holy Viaticum to the sick, a priest has to brave swollen and crocodile-infested rivers, vast expanses of swamps, impenetrable thorn thickets, sudden downpours, very humid sweltering temperature, etc. In the Visayas where the islands are so far apart, the priest risks being drowned by storms or captured by pirates. But with the sick being brought to church, the priest can attend simultaneously to 4 or 6 people, safely and comfortably carried in hammocks. [Otherwise] the priest would be spending all his time and energy to visit individual residences in scattered communities , especially in the time of pestilence.”

The  vicar provincial of the Dominicans pointed out that,  “ the houses here [in the Philippines]  were not like the ones in Nueva Espana (Mexico) where  dwellings are constructed on solid ground and have oratories.”  In contrast, the houses here are “so far apart, the structure itself is so rickety consisting of bamboo poles and palm fronds. The stairs are weak and there is always a danger  that  the priest bringing the last sacraments  will fall through the flimsy bamboo flooring….”  The Dominican vicar suggested that  the king should build infirmaries  where the sick could  be ministered and  since his subjects are poor, they also  need food and sustenance.  Most of sick  are abandoned by their relatives,  according to the vicar, so the royal decrees  should be suspended for the meantime.

The Recollect provincial argued that whoever advised the king to issue the decrees “did so out of zeal than out of experience. He does not possess personal knowledge of the conditions of the islands. To report that religious ministers do not administer confession and extreme unction is in itself, if not out of ignorance, a malicious calumny…. The ministers confer the sacraments anytime and anywhere the need summons…” The Recollect did not mince words to describe the suffering, hunger, sickness of the priests who dutifully brought the Holy Viaticum to the sick and dying; some of them were captured by pirates or hostile natives and died as martyrs of the faith.

Both archbishop and governor-general must have sent His Majesty a report of that meeting and while waiting for the official reply, the royal decrees were probably  put on hold. Evangelization was not an easy task in the 16th and 17th centuries;  it must have been sheer martyrdom before  Christianity bore fruit. The early missionaries faced all those odds in compliance with the Patronato Real. They had to breach the language barriers, suffer tropical heat and humidity, attacks of wild animals and marauders  in this  beautiful but often inhospitable archipelago, so remote and faraway from their king and country.