Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma’s Pastoral Letter on Kaplag


“Celebrating Christian Faith through our Devotion to the Child Jesus”

Three-fold Augustinian Celebration

The Archdiocese of Cebu joins the Augustinian Province of Santo Niño de Cebu- Philippines in celebrating three significant events this year 2015- namely, the 450th anniversary of the Augustinian presence in the Philippines (1565-2015), the 450th anniversary of the discovery or finding (“kaplag” in Cebuano) of the miraculous image of the Child Jesus in Cebu (1565-2015), and the 50th anniversary of the elevation of the Santo Niño Church in Cebu City to the rank of a “minor basilica” (1965-2015).

The above-mentioned three-fold event is a manifestation of divine grace bestowed upon out people and an occasion to express our gratitude and thanksgiving to the Almighty God for the gift of faith and for having chosen our country to be a beacon of light in this part of the world, being a nation in Asia with predominantly Catholic populace.

Discovery of the Miraculous Image of the Santo Niño

Our people’s devotion to the Child Jesus constantly reminds us of the humble beginning of our faith in God. The small image of the Santo Niño given as a gift by the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 to the local queen of Cebu on the occasion of her, her spouse and their subjects’ baptism marked the start of the Christianization of our people. The same religious icon was rediscovered in 1565 by one of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s men (named Juan de Camus in a small hut spared from the conflagration that destroyed the village of our forebears dwelling in Cebu at that time. 

A number of historical documents inform us about the events that took place during Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition in 1521 and Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s mission forty- four years later. Of particular interest to us is the discovery (“kaplag”) of the image of the Santo Niño on April 28, 1565. Thus we read in notarized statement (dated May 16, 1565) sworn in before the official notary, Fernando Riquel, and signed by Legazpi himself: “Coming to a small house, which seemed to have not been entered into by anyone, he (sc. Juan de Camus) went into it and upon entering he found two native boxes tied together. He opened one and it has nothing inside except a bowl and a wild pig tusk. The other one seemed light to him and contained nothing. He went deeper into the house, found another box tied with Castilian sailing thread and Castilian cord made of hemp .. and since it seemed heavy to him and to contain something, he cut the rope and opened it. Once opened, he found another box made of pine wood and a Child Jesus in it” (AGI Pat° 23 r° 16 folio 35)

The discovery of the religious icon was immediately interpreted as a sign of divine favor. The entire Spanish armada declared that God has rewarded the devotion that their leader, Legazpi, had for the Holy Name of Jesus and the ardent zeal with which he headed the expedition. For his part, Legazpi decided, first, to build a chapel on the very spot where the image was found, and, second, decreed the annual celebration of the said discovery. This explains, on the one hand, the prominence accorded to the present-day Basilica Minore del Santo Niño de Cebu, which is retained to correspond to the place where the icon was discovered, and, on the other hand, the annual celebration of the “Kaplag.” The Augustinian Province that sent the first missionaries to the Philippines was also named after the Most Holy Name of Jesus (Santisimo Nombre de Jesus), and a Cofradia was founded in honor of the Child Jesus.

Augustinian Mission in the Philippines

The first Augustinian missionaries arrived in the Philippines during the Legazpi expedition in 1565, with the explicit mission “to bring the natives of those regions to knowledge of out holy Catholic Faith,” as we read in a document dated September 1, 1564 (published in a collection of unedited document entitled De las Islas Filipinas) While sailing towards our land, the religious missionaries attended to the spiritual needs of the members of the entire fleet, confessing them, administering the Holy Communion, giving advice, and so forth. When the expedition finally reached the Philippines in February 1565, aside from fulfilling their religious function, they were always present in all the negotiations between the natives and the Spanish colonizers; they set out to learn the local language; gathered information concerning their customs, conditions, mode of life, manner of worship, etc. It was to them the miraculous image of the Santo Niño was entrusted right from the very beginning.

The initial attempt to Christianize our country in 1521 was abruptly interrupted with the death of Ferdinand Magellan and some of his men during the Battle of Mactan against the local chieftain Lapu-lapu and his warriors. The rest of the fleet had to leave our shores to save their lives. Documents do not attest to the presence of Spanish colonizers in the Philippines until 1565 notwithstanding other attempts to claim the Philippine Islands for the Spanish crown (like the 1525 expedition under Fray Garcia Jofre de Loaysa, that of 1526 under Sebastian de Cabot, that of 1527 under Alvaro de Saavedra, and that of 1542 under Gen. Ruy Lopez de Villalobos).During the forty-four years that transpired between 1521 and 1565, we are informed that the people baptized during Magellan’s time had apostatized and returned to the former beliefs.

The arrival of the Augustinian with the Legazpi expedition marked the resumption of the Christianization of our people. From 1565 onwards their mission to evangelize the Filipinos was never interrupted. Looking back at the past 450 years of the Augustinian presence in the Philippines, we realize how the early missionaries’ work went well-beyond religious matters. The legacy they have bequeathed us, indeed, covered various areas of our culture, like education, politics, urban planning, foundation of towns and cities, literature, sciences, philology and so forth. Fr. Martin de Rada and Fr. Juan de Quiñones – both of the Augustinian Order – were the first ones to write in the Bisaya and the Tagalog languages; the Augustinian were the ones who introduced the printing press to our country; they wrote grammar books, dictionaries, religious texts, etc, in many local languages and dialects; they pioneered researches in the fields of history and sciences (noteworthy is Fr. Manuel Blanco’s Flora de Filipinas published in 1837); at the outbreak of the 1898 revolution, the Augustinian had under their care 2,320,667 souls, distributed among 231 parishes and missions in 22 provinces.

Cebu as Center of the Filipino Devotion to the Santo Niño

Today, the Augustinian continue to promote the devotion to the Child Jesus wherever they work, both in the Philippines and abroad. Many representations of the Santo Niño were later introduced into our country, giving rise to a very rich municipality of expressions of popular religiosity. Thus we have, for example, the Santo Niño de Tondo in Manila, the Santo Niño de Arevalo in Iloilo, different images of Santo Niño in the guise of a fisherman, a farmer, a police man, a wandering boy, and many others.

The proliferation of the various images of the Child Jesus among the Filipino people bears witness to the continuous deepening and taking root of our faith and devotion to the Son of God in the form of a Child. However, the very center of all such devotions remains to be the city of Cebu, where the very first Santo Niño de Cebu for the said occasion.

The church that houses the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu is a significant part of our history as a nation and of our faith as a people. Its importance was duly recognized on many occasions. In 1941 it was accorded the title of a “national historical landmark.” On April 1, 1965 Pope Paul VI, on the occasion of the fourth centenary of the Christianization of the Philippines elevated it to the rank of a “minor basilica with the Papal Bull Ut clarificetur nomen Domini. A year before that, the image of the Santo Niño was canonically crowned in virtue of the Papal Bull Cunabula religionis (dated February 27, 1964). Lastly on August 1, 1973 Pres. Ferdinand Marcos, in virtue of P.D. 160 (sec. 2), declared both the church and the Augustinian convent adjacent to it as “national shrines and landmarks.”


The giving of the image of the Child Jesus by Ferdinand Magellan to the local queen of Cebu in 1521, its finding forty-four years later by a soldier of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, the arrival of the early Augustinian missionaries to our shores, the honors accorded to the church where the Santo Niño de Cebu has been venerated throughout the centuries, are significant and closely intertwined events in the long history of the faith of the Filipino people. By the year 2021 we will be celebrating the fifth centenary of the arrival of Christianity to our nation. The celebration of the “Kaplag” this year 2015 is an occasion for us to prepare ourselves for that big event and, at the same time, an invitation for us to thank God for the countless blessings that He unfailingly showered us through our devotion to His only begotten Son who, in the fullness of time (cf. Gal 4:4), took the form of a man, becoming a small child.

May our Lord Jesus – “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (Jn 14:6) – continue to bless and guide our people. May He help us deepen our faith in and love for the Heavenly Father and teach us to remain obedient to Him at all times. We ask this through the motherly intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Amen.


Archbishop Jose S. Palma, DD

Archbishop of Cebu


April 2, 2015, Holy Thursday