Catechism and native language


On Language, Culture, Catechism

The pre-Hispanic “Filipino” literature was mainly oral rather than written. Augustinian historian Fray Gaspar de San Agustin wrote in his Conquistas de las Islas Filipinas, 1698: “They have their letters and characters… but never is any ancient writing found among them, nor word of their origin and arrival in these islands; their customs and rites being preserved by traditions handed down from father to son without any other record.

Only In the Spanish era Filipinos started to write on paper and kept records of their property and financial transactions. In 1601, Filipino Christians had little “notebooks” where they kept records of Church Catechism lessons written in their “native characters and letters” known as the “Baybayin.”

Baybayin Ex

A Doctrina Christiana page with Baybayin text (on top) and Español text (below).

“Baybayin” is a Tagalog term which refers to the letters in writing the language — we call the “alphabet”. It is derived from the Tagalog root word “baybay,” meaning “spell or spelling”; and “baybayin” means “to spell out.” Baybayin is a syllabary (phonetics). It appeared firsts in book prints of Juan de Plasencia‘s Doctrina Christiana in 1593, on Fray Pedro Chirino‘s Relacion de las Islas Filipinas y de lo que en ellas han trabajado los padres de la Compania de Jesus, 1557-1635 in 1604, and on Fray Pedro de San Buenaventura‘s Vocabulario de Lengua Tagala in 1613.

Fray Chirino who was once the parish priest of Taytay, wrote in his book that “the islanders were accustomed to writing and reading that there is scarcely a man, and much less a woman, who cannot read and write in the letters proper to the island of Manila.” (Taytay then was part and under the jurisdiction of Manila.) 

Baybayin prints

The Bamboo and the dagger used to write on it. (Photo from The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind by David Diringer, 1948

Fray Chirino also discussed at length the usage of “Baybayin letter-characters” as he was greatly impressed that “by means of these characters, the natives easily make themselves understood and convey their ideas marvelously, he who reads supplying, with much skill and facility, the consonants which are lacking. From us, they have adopted the habit of writing from right to left. Formerly they write from the top to the bottom, placing the first line on the left (if I remember right), and continuing the rest at the right, contrary to the custom of the Chinese and Japanese—who although they write from top to bottom, begin from the right and continue the page to the left.”

It was observed by Fray Chirino that “the natives used to write on reeds, and palm-leaves, using as a pen an iron point; now they write their own letters, as well as ours, with a sharpened quill, and, as we do, on paper. They have learned our language and its pronunciation, and write it even better than we do, for they are so clever that they learn anything with the greatest ease. I had letters written by themselves in very handsome and fluent style.”

However, historian William H. Scott spoke in his book Barangay, Sixteenth Century Philippine Culture and Society (Manila 1994) “of the datus of the 1590s who could not sign affidavits or oaths, and of witnesses of the 1620s who could not sign land deeds.” Nonetheless, wherever the Baybayin was available, literacy was common not only among the elite but at all levels of society.

Coming of Spaniards

In places where friar-missionaries were assigned, their first task was to learn the native language or dialect. Some of them belonging to the first expedition to our country were well-acquainted with the methods of Fray Alonso de Molina, a 16th century Franciscan missionary in Mexico whose works include Doctrina Xtiana breve (1546), Vocabulario en la lengua Castellana y Mexicana (1555), Confessionario breve en lengua Mexicana y Castellana (1565), and Arte de la lengua Mexicana y Castellana (1571).


The first missionaries left us many writings in the Tagalog and Bicol languages. The best were those of Frays Juan de Plasencia, Juan de Oliver, Pedro de San Buenaventura, Miguel de Talavera, Diego de Asuncion, and Geronimo Monte. Plasencia and Talavera, while the latter was still a boy then, set foot in Taytay.

They mastered the Tagalog language, so much so that their writings were so common and well-received by all the Religious Orders. However, they have not been printed for they were so voluminous [and required approval of the King for funding].

Among the above-cited friars clearly stood out Fr. Juan de Plasencia. When the Franciscans held their first Chapter in the Philippines in 1580, among the resolutions was the tasking of Juan de Plasencia to compose a grammar and a dictionary of the Tagalog language.

However, Vocabulario de Lengua Tagala, the first printed Spanish-Tagalog dictionary was written by Fray Pedro de San Buenaventura in Pila Laguna in 1613. It was not just a plain dictionary-vocabulary; it also had the collection of some earliest local literature. It was printed by a “Chinoy”—Tomas Pinpin, the first Indio typographer-printer-publisher (Pinpin was with Dominador Laog).

Fray Plasencia, a pioneer

Juan de Plasencia was a Franciscan missionary priest and an exceptional linguist, educator, administrator, and evangelist. He became Custos or Superior of the Franciscans in 1579-1580 and 1584-1588, but this did not impede him in his work with the native language. He authored several religious and linguistic books, among which the Arte y Vocabulario Tagalo, a grammar and dictionary of the Tagalog language which was most useful because of the ease it facilitated understanding and knowledge of a native language so alien to missionaries.

In 1585, he composed a Tagalog prayer guide to contemplation entitled La Santina, a catechism for use of the natives who did not know the Spanish language so that they can “connect and share” with the spirituality of their teachers.

Baybayin Ex

Tagalog Baybayin transliteration (top text) and Español (below) – “The book, printed in Gothic letters and Tagalog characters on paper made from the paper mulberry, now browned and brittle with age, consists of thirty-eight leaves, comprising a title-page as above, under a woodcut of St. Dominic, with the verso originally blank, but in this copy bearing the contemporary manuscript inscription, Tassada en dos rreales, signed Juan de Cuellar; and seventy-four pages of text in Spanish, Tagalog transliterated into roman letters, and Tagalog in Tagalog characters.”  (Project Gutenberg)


The [image] showing St. Dominic beneath a star holding a lily and a book, the usual symbols of this saint, and clad in the white habit and black cloak of his order, seems to be of oriental workmanship, differing vastly from contemporary Spanish and Mexican cuts of the same type. The clouds, for instance, are characteristically Chinese, and the buildings in the background more reminiscent of eastern temples than European churches.”  (Project Gutenberg)

Most notable work of his was the Doctrina Christiana (“The Teachings of Christianity”) which contained the basic elements of the Faith the missionaries propagated to the remote regions of the world. It was the most useful handbook they had with its Tagalog and Chinese versions, aside from its Spanish original. They were titled as the “Doctrina Christiana, en la lengua española y tagala, corregida por los Religiosos de las Ordenes” (Tagalog), the “Tratado de la Doctrina de la Santa Iglesia y de ciencias naturales” (Español) and the “Doctrina Christiana en letra y lengua China, compuesta por los madres ministros de los Sangleyes, de la Orden de Sancto Domingo” (Chinese).xylograph

The Doctrina Christiana (Tagalog) was the first book ever printed in the Philippines in 1593—earlier than the first book printed in America in 1640. It was printed for the first time in xylographs, i.e., each page of the book text was printed from one woodblock which was carved by hand. This was the manner of printing employed by the Chinese, a thousand years before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press with movable types sometime in 1439.

Although reduced to its essential minimum, the Doctrina Christiana was taught quite dogmatic. It included the following: a syllabary (phonetics), the Pater Noster (Ama namin), the Ave Maria (Aba guinoong Maria), the Credo (Fumãgpalataia), the Salve Regina (Aba po fancta Mariang hari Yna nangawa), the Articles of Faith (Ang pono nang finasangpalatainan), Ten Commandments (Ang otos nang Dios, ce, sangpouo), Commandments of the Holy Church (Ang otos nang fancta y gtiã yna natin ceylima), the Sacraments (Pito ang mahal natanda), Seven Mortal Sins (Ang ponong casalanan ycapapacasama nang caloloua cey pito), Fourteen Works of Charity (Ang cauaan gaua labin apat), the Act of Contrition (Acoy macasalanan nagcocõpesal) and Catechism consisting of thirty-three questions and answers, all in Spanish and Tagalog and transliterated into the pre-hispanic Tagalog syllabary alphabets.

Ama namin xAba Ginoong Maria xSumasampalataya x

  Part of “Ama namin”         Part of “Aba guinoo Maria”       Part of “Ang fumagpalataia”

The Doctrina Christiana contains the basic elements of the religion which the missionaries were trying to spread among the unbaptized in the remote regions of the world, it was the most useful handbook they had.

The Misa Mayor was the community Sung Mass in which the entire parish (town-pueblo) was expected to attend on Sundays, holy days and fiestas. When the people gathered for the mass, it was also time to teach them the Doctrina Christiana. Such teaching or catechetical practice (kerygma) became an integral part of the liturgical function.

Essential tenets of the Catholic Church were most easily learned. The method used by the missionaries here in the country was practically the same as the one used in the evangelization of Mexico and rest of the Americas.

Aba po x

Part of “Aba po sancta Mariang hari”

Artcls Faith x

“Pono nang sinasangpalataianan”

10-Utos x

“Ang otos nang Dios. ce. sangpouo”

Fray Pedro Chirino’s turn

As in other missions, Taytay townfolks had the same Catechesis in Fray Chirino’s time. There were communitarian recitations or singing of the Tocsohan (teasing game or play), in which one party asks a question to be answered by the other party, the questioning and xxanswering roles being given reversed alternately after the correct answer has been given. That became a practice for the friars to apply some group dynamics like this to make the learning process creative and more pleasant especially to children. Fray Chirino wrote in his Relacion de las Islas Filipinas that “the emphasis was heavily placed on learning by rote memory, although understanding was also tested by regular question periods.” 

In 1593, two years after Fray Chirino’s arrival in Taytay, he used the Tagalog Catechism adopted by the Synod of Manila which the Dominicans printed on woodblocks. He conducted his Catechism class every morning after Mass. He taught the children their prayers—not merely to recite but to sing them using the measure of the traditional Tagalog chants. “The music that once the vehicle of pagan belief would become the vehicle of Christian faith [which we regard today as ‘inculturation’].”

Once the children learned to chant the prayers, a procession would go around and through the village chanting and singing going to the church. Parents would follow and catechism class would begin for both children and adults.

Very few extant books of the Philippines have survived time, nature, man-made ravages of war. There was even no systematic attempt of preserving in archives and libraries the records of the past. The two fires of 1603 that burned the Dominican convent in Manila to the ground and the whole of Parian (Binondo) outside the walls of Intramuros, resulted havoc upon the historic records of the friar-missionaries. The only copies of early Philippine books that still exist today were those sent to Europe in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, and before the Philippine Revolution.Doctrina Cristiana

King Philip II had a copy of the Doctrina Christiana sent him by Governor-General Gomez Perez Dasmariñas in 1593. Lorenzo Hervas y Panduro who wrote a number of educational works for deaf mutes, was a Jesuit philologist, who printed Tagalog texts from that Doctrina book in 1785. Since then, no more example had been known or recorded by any bibliographer or historian. However, a “1593 copy of the book printed in Manila” surfaced in the hands of a Paris bookseller and collector who specialized in Pacific imprints in 1946. William H. Schab, a New York dealer, took the book and brought it with him to the United States. It was then purchased by Lessing J. Rosenwald, and in turn, presented the “find” to the Library of Congress.

The aforesaid book could be the very copy sent to Philip II or, perhaps, the copy used by Hervas that might have been gone astray during the civil war in Spain.

But, who knows, when the day will come that other extant books will resurface to shed light on matters of our historical past?









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