Number of Filipino Catholics alter traditional Christmas celebrations

Some prefer works of mercy to attending religious services
Number of Filipino Catholics alter traditional Christmas celebrations

A churchgoer lights a candle after attending the Filipino traditional nine-day dawn Mass prior to Christmas. Many Filipinos are abstaining from religious services, opting instead for works of mercy. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

Lucy Zenarosa and Gener Totanes are not celebrating Christmas in church. Both confess to being "non-practicing" Catholics.

Zenarosa, a 28-year old graphic artist, said she will spend the holidays with the "less fortunate" in some poor community "to feel the real presence of Christ."

"I don't see God in Sunday Mass or in any other celebration like Christmas," she told 

"Instead of going to church, I practice my faith by directly helping poor people," she added. "I see Christ in them. I think I should serve my people not the church," Lucy said.

Totanes, a 48-year old rescue worker from the province of Camarines Norte, said he only goes to church when a friend or a family member dies. 

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Instead of attending rituals and celebrations like Christmas, Totanes said he does "good things to others," saying that he believes that "it's the real meaning of being a Catholic."

On Christmas Eve, while his family goes to church, Totanes will prepare the Christmas dinner.  

"Why go to church if I don't agree with the priest's political homilies," said Totanes.


Declining institutional relevance

The growing number of Filipinos escaping traditional church celebrations, including Christmas, can be viewed as a result of a decline in the institutional church's influence and relevance.

Jayeel Serrano Cornelio, development studies program director at the Ateneo de Manila University, said the decline of traditional church practices, like attending dawn Masses, reflects how the Catholic Church is losing its appeal to Filipinos.

A 2013 survey done by the Social Weather Stations noted that weekly church attendance among Catholic adults in the Philippines has been declining, from 64 percent in July 1991 to only 37 percent in February 2013.

"Most priests argue that the decline of church attendance is because of the influence of media and new technology," said Cornelio. "I don't believe that it is the mass media's fault or the Internet, or science," he added.

"The problem is the institution itself, but [church leaders] don't want to acknowledge it," said Cornelio, a sociologist who specializes in religion. 

He cited survey results that revealed 70 percent of Filipino Catholics support the reproductive health law despite the opposition of the country's Catholic bishops.

"Technically, the [bishops] are opposing [Filipino Catholics] not just the law," Cornelio said.

But Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo of Manila said it was unfair to define the church’s relevance through the bad experience of some individuals.

"It is unfair to say and generalize that the church has a declining religious authority because a parishioner had a bad experience over a priest's homily," Bishop Pabillo told

"The priest's action doesn't reflect the whole Catholic Church nor a parishioner doesn't represent the whole Christian community," he said 

"It is easy to look for bad experiences of Catholics while practicing their faith … but it is not how we gauge the religious authority of the church," said Bishop Pabillo.

Archbishop Sergio Utleg of Tuguegarao said the church should support those who perform "popular religiosity," something that Pope Francis described as one of the most effective bearers of faith. 

"We should look on the positive side of every Filipino's way of celebrating Christmas," Utleg said, adding that "if a cultural expression or modern method of practicing the Catholic faith is an act of liberation, then we should respect that."

"We must learn to embrace people whatever their beliefs may be and guide them into the light of a Eucharistic lifestyle," he said.


Understanding tradition

Cornelio said Filipino traditional practices are relevant only to a particular community if they understand the tradition. 

"Ironically, it is called 'tradition' because it means 'from the past,' but the truth is, the power of tradition lies in the present," he said, adding that the "power of tradition" is dependent on whether people, who practice it, understand.

"If it doesn't make sense to people anymore, then tradition loses its power," Cornelio said.

"The role of the church is to teach the people, or to provide catechism that fuels faith," said Cornelio, adding that without catechism the new generation will never understand and will never feel why there are celebrations like Christmas.

Redemptorist Brother Ciriaco Santiago said Filipino priests, religious, and laity need to review their role in the church.

"It is simple but also a difficult thing to do," he said. "There is a need to collect our purpose. Why are we here? To whom are we doing this," said Brother Santiago.

The church needs to do a thorough "self-assessment," he said, adding that several religious congregations vow to provide education to the poor, but schools and universities run by religious communities are to expensive for the poor.

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