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1st Mass controversy:
It's Limasawa
By Jani Arnaiz

Inquirer Visayas logo FOUR hundred seventy-eight years and the celebration begins.

Now, Southern Leyteños and the rest of the Filipino people could heave a sigh of relief over the controversy surrounding the site of the First Mass which ushered in the Christianization of the Philippines. The issue is resolved.

mass.jpg The first ever Christian Mass in the country on March 31, 1521 was celebrated in the island of Limasawa, south of Leyte and not in Butuan City, so declared the National Historical Institute.

The finding was reached by the Gancayco Commission--composed of retired Supreme Court Justice Emilio A. Gancayco as chair, lawyer Bartolome C. Fernandez and Dr. Maria Luisa T. Camagay--which was created in May 1996 by the NHI to ''resolve a very sensitive historical issue facing our country and our people.''

''It is the . . . view of the panel that, upon a preponderance of evidence culled from the primary sources, the first ever Christian Mass on Philippine soil on March 31, 1521 was celebrated in the island of Limasawa south of Leyte,'' concluded the commission in its 24-page decision.

In its conclusion, the commission said ''the panel closes the presentation confident that any and all lingering doubts regarding such historical detail are now put to rest. Paraphrasing what the Bible proclaims, the truth about a bygone era in Philippine history shall set us free.''

The Gancayo Commission submitted its findings to Samuel K. Tan, chair and executive director of the NHI on March 20, 1998. But this finding was only formally turned over to Limasawa officials on March 31, during the 478th anniversary of the First Mass.

It was a poignant event for the spectators of the celebration when Violeta Barcelon Omega, director of the Don Jose Ecleo Memorial Foundation College of Science and Technology in Surigao del Norte, handed over the original NHI decision given to her by Tan to Limasawa Mayor Albert Esclamado.

Tan also formally announces through a press statement that he has adopted the finding reached by the Gancayo Commission, to put to a close the Limasawa-Butuan controversy.


The commission concluded that the First Mass was held in Limasawa after it found that:

l The most complete and reliable account of the Magellan expedition into Philippine shores in 1521 is that of Antonio Pigafetta which is deemed as the only credible primary source of reports on the celebration of the first Christian Mass on Philippine soil.

l James Robertson's English translation of the original Italian manuscript of Pigaffeta's account is most reliable for being ''faithful'' to the original text as duly certified by the University of the Philippines' Department of European Language.

l Pigafetta's Mazaua, the site of the first Christian Mass held on Philippine soil, is an island lying off the southwestern tip of Leyte while Masao in Butuan is not an island but a barangay of Butuan City located in a delta of the Agusan River along the coast of Northern Mindanao. The position of Mazaua, as plotted by Pigafetta, matched that of Limasawa.

l The measurement of distances between Homonhon and Limasawa between Limasawa and Cebu, as computed by the pro-Limasawa group, matches or approximates the delineations made by Pigafetta of the distances between Homonhon and Mazaua and between Mazaua and Cebu.

l Magellan's fleet took a route from Homonhon to Mazaua and from Mazaua to Cebu that did not at any time touch Butuan or any other part of Mindanao. The docking facilities at Limasawa did not pose any problem for Magellan's fleet which anchored near or at some safe distance from the island of the eastern shore.

To the Gancayco Commission, ''History is both a useful and fascinating subject. As one travels through time, one is bound to find it rich in stories. Every kind of testimony is drawn upon from eyewitness accounts to statistical tables. Personal records, such as diaries, can certainly tell more than the official documents.

''One of the great delights of time travel is encountering the unfamiliar for that is what brings history to life. We use history, not to tell us what happened or to explain the past, but make the past alive so that it can explain us and make a future possible,'' the commission said, quoting from Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind.

In writing and end to the controversy, the commission said it proceeded with utmost care.

It said that the conclusion was made to enlighten the current generation and remove all confusion about where the First Mass was held in the Philippines.

Paraphrasing Adlai Stevenson's, ''We can chart our future clearly and wisely when we know the path that has led to the present,'' the panel said: ''The path is now conclusively established to have begun at the island of Limasawa where the first ever Christian Mass on Philippine soil was offered on March 31, 1521 by Ferdinand Magellan and his men.''

The controversy

As recounted by Pigafetta in his chronicle of Magellan's expedition to the Philippine islands starting March 16, 1521, the first Christian Mass celebrated on Philippine soil was made in an island which he called ''Mazaua.''

The precise identity and location of this venue of the First Mass became the subject of writings of historians and scholars whose differing interpretations of Pigafetta's account would eventually spawn lead to a controversy.

For three centuries, it was the prevailing belief that Pigafetta's Mazaua was a place called Masao near Butuan City in Northern Mindanao. The Butuan belief persisted from the 17th to the 19th century.

Limasawa was identified as the most likely venue in 1894 with the publication of a manuscript of Pigafetta's account of Magellan's voyage--the Ambrosian codex in Milan--in its Italian text.

This work written by Pigafetta was made available to scholars including American James Alexander Robertson who translated into English the original text with the help of Emma Blair. The translation was incorporated in Robertson's ''The Philippine Islands.''

According to Fr. Miguel A. Bernal, SJ, an author, the only versions of Pigafetta's account available to previous scholars were ''summaries and garbled translations.''

To understand why Pigafetta's original text was not available to past scholars, Fr. Peter Schreurs, M.S.C., Ph.D., parish priest of Magallanes town where Butuan's Mazaua is located, said the manuscript given to Charles V was never published and was considered lost.

Fr. Schreurs in his book ''The Search for Pigafetta's Mazaua,'' said the other copy of the book was given to the mother of the King of France.

The said book was mentioned in various reports between 1526 and 1534 when an abridged French version was produced and translated into Italian. This was later used by authors and cartographers.

But the controversy did not stop there. In 1995, the Masao group through Butuan Rep. Charito Plaza, initiated the filing of a bill, to ''Declare the site of Masao, Butuan City, as the place where the first Easter Mass in the Philippines was held.'' The bill was not acted upon.

The bill, which aggravated the controversy, was obviously an attempt to repeal Republic Act 2733, a law enacted in 1960, ''declaring the site in Magallanes, Limasawa island in the province of Leyte, where the First Mass in the Philippines was held as a national shrine.''

It was in 1971 when residents and visitors saw the grandeur of the First Mass celebration prepared by former President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, who is from Leyte. The celebration was the 450th anniversary.

Pedencio Olojan, 90, said he could not remember any activities at all related to the First Mass.

But he recalled that when he was 18 years old he was digging for treasure with several other treasure hunters. He failed to find any treasure but a friend sold him an artifact for P100. That was 81 years ago. Some of the treasures which his friend dug up are now in a museum in Butuan City.

Deafening silence

With the wealthy Plaza clan backing the Masao claim, Southern Leyte could only answer with a deafening silence.

Lawyer Joaquin Chung Jr., whose research on the First Mass brought him to Europe, blamed the past political leaders of Southern Leyte for not taking up the cause of Limasawa while Plaza lambasted the Limasawa claim in the halls of Congress.

Southern Leyte then belonged to Club 20, the term coined for the country's 20 poorest provinces.

But former Rep. Roger Mercado and Gov. Oscar Tan stood up for Limasawa in 1996 when they prepared a feast to mark the 475th anniversary of the First Mass. Frantic preparations were made to usher in VIP visitors and dignitaries who were expected to attend the jubilee celebration.

In the end, it was only Rhett Pelaez, then presidential assistant for the Visayas, who came. Pelaez then declared: ''It is immaterial whether the site of the First Mass was in Masao or Limasawa, what matters is we are here celebrating.''

Victory day

But on March 31, Limasawa Island saw the arrival not only of mainland Leyte residents but also of foreign dignitaries, led by Enrique Michel, Mexican ambassador to the Philippines, to celebrate Limasawa's ''victory.''

The 478th anniversary was a feast as the province and Limasawa were celebrating not only the decision of NHI but also the donation made by Rev. Vicente Dayagbil Sr., bishop of the Philippine Independent Church, of the lot where the First Mass Shrine now sits.

Leyteños also celebrated the restoration of the shrine's chapel, courtesy of the Maasin Knight of Columbus and the pledges made by the governments of Spain and Portugal to help finance the construction of a 50-foot monument of the Risen Christ at the highest point of the island to commemorate the First Mass and the first recorded meeting between Eastern and Western cultures.

For Gov. Rosette Yñiguez-Lerias, the 478th celebration was also the start of the social, educational and economic exchanges of East and West.

April 15, 1999

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