Five hundred years ago the Portuguese mariner Ferdinand Magellan first arrived, bringing the Christian faith to the Philippines, which has become a beacon of the Roman Catholicism in this part of the world.

The Philippines is the third largest Catholic country in the world after Brazil and Mexico and is the largest in Asia, counting as adherents more than 80 percent of its 110-million population.

Since the late 16th century, when Spain had established its foothold in the country, the Philippines has been the biggest source of Catholic missionaries for the evangelization of East Asia, particularly China and Japan.

Now, the Philippines has been “exporting” Filipino priests throughout the world and together with Filipino overseas workers, they have been filling up churches in Western Europe, the Middle East, North America and Asia.

Pope Francis has recognized this and encouraged Filipinos to keep their faith alive and burning, when he celebrated Mass at the Vatican to commemorate 500 years of Christianity on the fourth Sunday of Lent.

But Catholicism did not take root immediately in the Philippines when Magellan came to Cebu in 1521. Magellan and the Spaniards did not find an existing state in the country but several fiefdoms ruled by “datus” or “rajahs” who, at times, fought with each other for a number of reasons.

Pre-Hispanic Filipinos belonged to many faiths. They practiced folk religion based on Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and animism, mixing belief in God with pagan rituals.

Even to this day, pagan rituals are seen in the devotion to the Child Jesus in the annual “Sinulog,” “Dinagyang” and “Ati-atihan” festivals in central Philippines.

Magellan found the pre-Hispanic Filipinos with a distinct culture, including practices that conflicted with Christian beliefs, especially on marriages and women’s submission to their husbands.

It took almost a month before Magellan converted Rajah Humabon into Catholicism together with his wife and about 800 followers during a baptism Mass on April 14, 1521.

But it was not known if Rajah Humabon kept the Catholic faith after Magellan was killed in the Battle of Mactan. The Portuguese explorer’s subordinates hastily left and sailed back to Spain, in the process achieving a rare feat of circumnavigating the world.

Rajah Humabon might not have taken the Catholic faith by heart as he turned against the remaining followers of Magellan, poisoning them in a banquet hosted for Juan Serrano, Magellan’s successor.

Four decades later, another Spanish explorer, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, arrived in Cebu and found its inhabitants hostile. The Spanish, with 500 soldiers in five ships, subdued the Cebu ruler at that time, Rajah Tupaz, but found a Catholic religious icon in one of the burnt houses — the Santo Niño.

The Santo Niño, preserved in a wooden box, was a gift presented by Magellan to Humabon and his wife after they were baptized in 1521.

The discovery of the Santo Niño was considered a sign and the Spaniards built a chapel on the spot where the icon was found. Today, the Santo Niño Church stands on that original site, the first Catholic church in the Philippines.

The birth of Christianity in the Philippines should be marked on April 28, 1565 when the Santo Niño was found in Cebu. Four hundred years later, Pope Paul VI made the church a basilica as a symbol of the birth and growth of Catholicism in the country.

It took six more years before Legazpi moved his seat of power from Cebu to Manila, from where Catholic missionaries and Filipino lay leaders were sent throughout the Far East from the 16th to the late 19th centuries.

Two Filipinos were martyred and elevated to sainthood by the Vatican — Lorenzo Ruiz and Pedro Calungsod. They chose to die rather than renounce their Catholic faith.

Catholicism spread slowly from the Visayas to Luzon throughout the 333 years the country was under Spanish rule. Mindanao remained a Muslim stronghold although Spain built fortresses and settlements, like in Zamboanga.

Spain converted people in the Visayas and Luzon slowly by offering protection from Muslim, Chinese and Japanese pirates and slave-traders who frequently raided coastal settements.

The churches, which had high belfries, were used to warn the people against marauding pirates, and their stone walls protected the people from attacks and natural calamities.

Spanish bishops and priests had dominant roles in the political, economic and civic lives of the communities as the Cross of Jesus Christ did not only become a symbol of faith but also of oppression and abuse, immortalized by national hero Jose Rizal in his novel Noli me Tangere.

In the 16th century, the Catholic Church was a powerful political force, emerging from the ashes of the Western Roman Empire which collapsed in 476 A.D.

In Rome, where the Pope sits as head of the Latin Church, he crowned rulers of various kingdoms that emerged from the old provinces of the Roman Empire in Western Europe.

Even after the Great Schism in the 11th century when the Eastern Roman Empire, widely known as the Byzantine Empire, had its own head of the Orthodox Church, the Pope was respected and revered in the West.

The Pope even settled disputes between the two rising powers in Europe in the late 15th century, giving Portugal all territories to be explored to the east and Spain the territories to the west.

And that’s how Ferdinand Magellan tried to get to the Spice Islands by sailing westward to the New World and finding a route that would bring Spain to the Far East, not only in the Moluccas but to China and Japan which were described by Marco Polo in his travels centuries earlier.

The Iberian peninsula powers, backed by the Roman Catholic Church, were also in competition with the Muslim-led Ottoman empire, the most dominant power in the east at that time.

Islam spread from the Middle East to north Africa and Europe and then reached Southeast Asia.

Manila was a Muslim kingdom and the ruler was related to the Sultan of Brunei who ruled large areas of Borneo. In fact, he gave Sabah as a reward to the Sultan of Sulu for helping put down a rebellion and fight his enemies.

But there was no evidence to show that Cebu and the areas visited by Magellan in 1521 were ruled by Muslim chieftains. The only Muslim mentioned by Magellan’s chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta, was Datu Siagu of Butuan, the brother of Rajah Kolambu of Limasawa island.

Magellan’s expedition from Spain in 1519 was in search of a trading post but he became a missionary when he introduced the Christian faith in the Philippines.

He planted a cross on Limasawa Island after an Easter Sunday Mass on March 31, 1521, and weeks later on the third Sunday of Easter, April 14, 1521, the ruler of Cebu, Rajah Humabon, and 800 followers were baptized as Catholics.

Rajah Humabon, Rajah Kolambu and Rajah Siagu might have converted to Christianity by accident. They thought the baptism rites were a friendship ritual of the Spaniards, similar to the blood compact they had during those times.

But it was enough to plant the seeds of Christianity, which prompted Spain to send follow-up missions to the country. This time, the expeditions were accompanied by priests, Augustinian friars, to evangelize in the Far East.

From the late 16th century until now, Catholicism has played a vital role in the Filipinos’ way of life. The Philippines continued to send missionaries abroad and is a base for training priests bound for mainland China, where there is an underground Catholic Church.

But the Vatican has to give more credit to Filipino Catholics and the clergy who keep the faith burning. It has to appoint a new archbishop for the Archdiocese of Manila. And it has to appoint more Filipino cardinals in recognition of the efforts done to propagate the faith.

As the Philippines marks its 500 years of Christianity this month, it is only fitting to recognize the Filipinos’ contribution to Catholicism by appointing a new Manila archbishop and elevating him later to the College of Cardinals.

The archbishop in Cebu must also be elevated to the rank of cardinal in recognition of Roman Catholicism’s first-ever church in Southeast Asia.