The Philippines is an archipelago in Southeast Asia that consists of 7,641 islands, 2,000 of which are inhabited. The two largest islands, Luzon and Mindanao, account for two-thirds of the country’s total population and surface area. Luzon includes Manila, the capital; Mindanao is home to most Muslims in the Philippines and requires military protection as a result of terrorist violence.

Veronique Vogel, the head of Aid to the Church in Need’s office in the Philippines, recently returned from a project trip to the country and sat down to discuss its current state and the challenges facing the Church.

What is the current situation in the Philippines? And how is it affected by last year’s presidential election?

Last year, Bongbong Marcos was elected president. The country is calmer now than it was under his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. People worried that Marcos might reinstate a dictatorship, as his father had done, but this has not happened yet, and democratic norms have been respected so far. There are fewer murders now, and fewer drug-related murders, specifically. But despite this, democracy in the Philippines is still weak.

The country suffers from corruption at many levels, in both society and government. One bishop described society and government in the Philippines as nepotistic; family connections and the people you know are of the utmost importance. Another problem is the high migration rate: 1.96 million Filipinos live abroad, leading to widespread family breakdown.

And nearly twenty-eight percent of the population is below the poverty line. This is not so apparent in Manila, but it is prominent in rural areas. This also applies to Mindanao and has fueled the region’s problem with Islamic extremism. But overall, certain sectors are doing well, and the domestic market is very strong, as the Philippines is a consumerist society. On the other hand, those working in agriculture, about one-third of the population, are at the mercy of stock exchange prices for crops like tobacco, coconut, and sugarcane.

A new parish church and shrine in the Philippines

What about Islamic extremism in the country, particularly in Mindanao?

It is relatively quiet at the moment, though there are still some pockets of violence, mostly involving the Islamic State (IS); there was a bombing shortly before I went to the Philippines. And in Mindanao, the military is everywhere, for security purposes. Bishops in the region even have military escorts. There is fear that if they leave, the violence could escalate again.

How would you describe the state of the Church in the Philippines?

In 2021, the Philippines celebrated the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity. Today, just over ninety-one percent of the population are Christians, with Catholics accounting for eighty-two percent. Muslims make up about seven percent of the population, and just over one percent are animists. The Philippines has the third-largest Catholic population in the world, with over 81 million faithful, behind only Brazil and Mexico. It is also one of the two majority Christian countries in Asia, alongside East Timor. Catholicism was introduced to the Philippines by the Spanish, and this influence is still visible, for example, in the style of church statues.

The Filipinos are spiritual people. Mass attendance is high, and devotions to the Black Nazarene and Our Lady are strong and very tangible; for example, one parish had eight Sunday Masses. The people are joyful, kind, generous, and hospitable. And there are very active parish councils led by the lay faithful, and women are highly involved.

What are some challenges facing the Church in the Philippines?

Priests say that they see fewer young people coming to Mass. Many young people prefer to meet in malls instead of the parish. Another issue is lingering paganism; Catholics in rural areas still pray to their ancestors. In some ways, Christianity is still superficial here, and not deeply rooted. There is also the major problem of drugs, violence, and alcohol. Violence is frequently directed at women and children, and  in broken families, it is often the case that faith is not properly passed down. More work is needed to promote the values of the Gospel; for example, one priest told me that many young people do not marry in churches, as they cannot afford expensive weddings, which some feel are required. These couples often live together without getting married, but they want to be involved in the Church.

There are also sects in the Philippines. There are small Protestant groups, as well as the Iglesia ni Cristo sect, which claims to be the true Church and has approximately 2.7 million members. They preach outside Catholic churches after Mass, and some Catholics join them because they find the rules of the Catholic Church too hard.

But still, we met people who are very enthusiastic and very involved in their parishes. The Catholic Church is dynamic and well-organized, and Catholicism is embedded in the Filipino identity.

What is ACN doing to support the Church in the Philippines?

Much of our support is focused on the formation of seminarians, novices, and catechists. We also support the ongoing formation of priests and religious sisters, and various diocesan commissions to address the issue of broken families.

Fr. Sebastiano d’Ambra with Muslim leaders in the Philippines

Additionally, ACN supports inter-religious dialogue, particularly through our help to the Silsilah movement, which started in Zamboanga, on the island of Mindanao. ACN has worked with the founder of this movement, Fr. Sebastiano d’Ambra, for forty years. He is interested in fostering dialogue between Catholics and Muslims, so these communities can live together in peace. Another priority is deepening the faith of Catholics, so in the Emmaus movement, a branch of Silsilah, has opened a College of Theology for young people, so they can actively serve the Church as religion teachers. ACN supported the construction of the college and is now helping to build a hostel for female theology students. We also partly fund the studies of those with financial need.